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This Oscar-Winning Film Could Help End Honor Killings In Pakistan

Saba, 18, eloped with her fiance, which her family regarded as bringing shame upon them. So her father and uncle tried to kill her.

Louis C.K. tried to bring some respect to the best documentary short Oscar last night: "You cannot make a dime on this [category]. These people will never be rich for as long as they live. ... All they do is tell stories that are important."

But the winning film may do something more important than make money — it could save lives.

The Oscar went to Pakistani director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy for A Girl In The River: The Price Of Forgiveness in the best documentary short category. (She had won previously, in 2012, for the film Saving Face.)

Her new 40-minute documentary tackles the tough topic of honor killings in Pakistan, from a rare point of view: a survivor's. Saba, an 18-year-old girl, was shot and thrown in a river by her own family for secretly eloping with her lover — and lived to tell the tale.

The film also examines the interpretations of Islam that allow this brutal practice that claims the lives of more than 1,000 girls and women each year, and the human rights groups lobbying for new laws to protect them.

In her acceptance speech, Obaid-Chinoy said that after Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif watched the film, he said he would change the laws on honor killing.

"This is what happens when determined women get together," she said. "That is the power of film."

NPR's Steve Inskeep spoke with Obaid-Chinoy about the film, why she thinks honor killings are acceptable in Pakistan, and how Saba is fighting back. On March 7, Morning Edition will air the interview. On that same date, the film will premiere on HBO. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What motivated Saba's family to kill her?

Saba was engaged to a young man and she wanted to get married to him. The family was OK with it, but the uncle was not. He decided she should marry someone else. Bravely one morning, Saba ran away from home to a local court and got married. Her father and uncle came to her in-laws' house and said, "Let us take her back to our home, and then you come take her honorably so neighbors and society don't look upon us as a family that has been shamed."

But instead, they put her in a car, took her to a wooded area, beat her for a long time before shooting her, put her in a gunny sack, and threw her in a river. She miraculously survived.

That's what makes this case extraordinary — that there is someone around to tell the story you just told.

It was very important to tell the story from the point of view of the survivor. In 99 percent of cases, the women perish and are unable to tell the story. Saba not only survived, but she fought back. She got out of the river and found a local fuel station. She was shot in her face and her hand, and she was in a lot of pain.

The beauty of the story is that in that small town, the social services worked for Saba. The paramedics, the rescue services came and picked her up. She was taken to a government hospital run by a fantastic doctor who got his best surgeons to save her life. The police responded by providing additional security for her. The police sent out investigators to find her father and uncle, and eventually jailed them.

Did her father and uncle get the justice they deserved?

Saba was determined to fight the case. She wanted to make examples of her father and uncle. There's a line in the film where she says, "I want them to be shot in public so that no other father, man does this to a woman and his family."

In Pakistan, in cases of honor killings, there is a caveat. You can be forgiven for honor killings.

The way it works is that if a father kills his daughter, his wife can forgive him. If a brother kills his sister, parents can forgive. In this case, because Saba survived, the community members in the neighborhood said they would ostracize her in-laws if Saba didn't forgive them. Saba was losing hope.

Toward the end, she does go to court and pardons her father and the uncle. I thought she had actually just succumbed to society. But she said something to me toward the end of film that really stayed with me: "I forgive them for the world; I forgive them because of family pressure, because of societal pressure. But in my heart, they will always be unforgiven."

What happened when you talked to Saba's uncle and father?

They were defiant. They believed what they did was right, and they would do it again. Her father, looking straight at me, said, "Yes, I killed her. She's my daughter and I wanted to kill her. I provided for her. How dare she defy me? How dare she go out without my permission? And I am ready to spend my entire life in jail because this is something I did for my honor, the honor of my family. She has shamed us."

He talks about his daughter as if she's money or property.

He was saying that he owned her and that she could not make decisions on her own. He said something like, "I used to feed her three times a day." You know, you feed animals three times a day. He didn't look at her as another human being.

How has the Pakistani government reacted to the film?

The prime minister came out and said that he wanted to work on the issue of honor killings, and he has since then met with me. He has spoken with members of his political party to plug loopholes in the law. He's saying that there is no place for honor killings in Islam, and we must make that clear to everybody.

If this law passes, the honor killings will be a crime against the state. A lot of things can go wrong [in trying to get this law passed]. But if three or four people go to jail, the fifth person will think twice before shooting someone in his family.

What do you think is the difference between a society where honor killings are acceptable and a society where it's not?

If you look at communities where men feel like they own women, they want to control women. It's all a power struggle. When women enforce their rights, when they want more rights, men find ways to silence them. Killing them is the best way to silence them. This issue of shame and honor — I've always wondered why it has to rest with the woman. Why can't it rest with a man?

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