Marvel Studios is no longer a stranger to telling stories featuring diverse leads. The studio has made a push to represent cultures from across the globe, with films like “Black Panther,” “Shang-Chi and The Legends of the Ten Rings,” and “Eternals.”
Disney+ has just released “Ms. Marvel,” the limited six-part series that tells the story of a 16-year old Pakistani-American high school student from New Jersey, called Kamala Khan. Played by Iman Vellani, Khan is an Avenger fangirl who struggles to fit in until she learns she has super powers of her own.
“Ms. Marvel” takes a grounded look at the family dynamics of South Asian culture in America, marking a new notch in Marvel’s roster of inclusive storytelling.
And, as a balancing mix of teen drama and super hero story, “Ms. Marvel” may not have sounded like a project director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy would take on. That’s because the Pakistani-Canadian journalist and activist honed her filmmaking skills on graphic documentaries depicting the injustices of women in her home country of Pakistan. Over the years, however, she has become passionate about telling stories for a younger audience.
“I wanted to tell stories that would deeply resonate with young people, that had strong messaging,” Obaid-Chinoy says. “And I wanted to find a way, a medium that would do that.
She directed two of the six-part series, and the longtime documentary filmmaker displays a sense of pride and excitement about the series.
“It's a dream to have validation that your music, your culture, your food, your textiles, the vibrancy of your culture is being celebrated,” she remarks. Since debuting, the series has received the highest score for a Marvel production on Rotten Tomatoes.
“Ms. Marvel” is Obaid-Chinoy’s first live-action, narrative fiction. Before taking on the series, she finished a computer animated short-movie for Netflix called Sitara: Let Girls Dream. Ready for another project, her agents at CAA alerted her that Marvel Studios was searching for directors for “Ms. Marvel.”
“So I threw my hat in the ring,” she recalls, and she met the show’s executive producers Bisha K. Ali and Kevin Fiege, as well as Victoria Tracconi, marketing and publicity manager. She pitched her vision for the main character Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel, what she would look like, how her powers would play out, her family dynamics, and even the music for the series.
“For the first time, I felt like this was the right project for me to cross over from one medium to another,” she says about moving from making documentaries to a narrative fiction format.
Obaid-Chinoy was hired and says, “before I knew it, I was calling action,” in a collaborative effort with Edil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah and Meera Menon, the three other directors making four episodes. “[I just looked] at the vision that they had, and how they wanted to tell the story, and sort of [took] in all their suggestions, right down to scouting of locations,” she adds. The series was filmed in Thailand, Atlanta, and New Jersey.
“Animation was a natural step forward.”
Before taking on the Marvel series, Obaid-Chinoy’s first brush with non-fiction came in 2015 when she made the animation-action film “3 Bahadur,” or the “Tree Brave.” It tells the story of three children with super powers who save their town from an evil force. The Pakistani box-office smasher helped her get the gig to direct “Ms. Marvel.”
“The ‘Ms. Marvel’ connection is, for me, very strong because I think that I've always told stories about ordinary people who have extraordinary abilities. [‘3 Bahadur’] are superheroes in their own communities. They just don’t wear capes,” she says. “And Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel, what she represents, is very much in line with the other characters that I had been filming throughout my career, which is to show the world that you can be a superhero, no matter who you are or where you come from.”
Obaid-Chinoy became the first Pakistani to make a computer-animated feature-length film. She wanted to tell stories for young people, while retaining strong messaging, and found that animation was a perfect medium to achieve that after years of documentary filmmaking.
“Animation was something that I knew that I could get away with saying so much, because of the medium,” she says. “So I put forward really strong themes in the trilogy that I created, so that [it] could bypass the censor board, and still entertain, still empower.”
Animation was a new medium for the documentarian who had never studied film.
“I learned everything, from watching things online, from speaking to experts. To be honest, that's how I became a documentary filmmaker,” she confesses. “So for me to move from medium to medium, it's not a big sort of adjustment, because I've never had a formative film education.”
Obaid-Chinoy is best known for her work in documentary films, for which she won two Academy Awards. First, she was the recipient of an Oscar, along with director Daniel Junge, for their 2012 documentary-short Saving Face, a film about Pakistani women who suffered acid attacks.
After she won the Oscar she says, “everyone was talking about this brown girl who won an Academy Award, and it was really surreal. But what really hit home for me, is the fact that you can be anyone and you can come from anywhere, but if you really put the stories that matter out there, there will be people who will watch and there will be sort of a celebration of the storytelling.”
Then, in 2016 Obaid-Chinoy received her second Oscar for the biographical documentary film “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness,” which tells the story of a poor, young woman who was shot, thrown in a river and narrowly escaped from an attempted "honor" killing by her father and uncle in Pakistan.
A billion people watching: A law is passed to stop honor killings in Pakistan
After “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness” was nominated for an Academy Award, the filmmaker met with then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to ask him to commit to a law to stop honor killings in her country.
“I told myself I need to get this law passed. So I urged the Prime Minister [to] screen the film, which he did, and it was live streamed across our national television, across millions of homes,” she states. “[Then] he made this important speech that said, ‘There is no honor in killing a woman’.”
While touring Los Angeles for the 2016 Academy Awards, Obaid-Chinoy announced Sharif had pledged to change the law, which “he subsequently had to, because a billion people were watching,” she remarks. “I have always believed that it is extremely important to ask, to kick open doors, to sort of get out there, and never underestimate the power of a determined woman.”
Obaid-Chinoy says her work as a documentarian is to create awareness of difficult topics. “It also now means that every time something happens, instead of being relegated to the back pages of the news, it is front page news, people are talking about it, that means that there is this sense of fear about violence against women,” she affirms.
But despite more recent legal strides, millions of women still suffer violence around the world.
“It's a very unfortunate reality of being a woman in the world today, where we don't have control, rights of our own bodies,” she laments, but remains hopeful as long as women band together. “The more women who speak out, the more women who sort of hold the torch forward, it'll be harder to continue to have such levels of violence against women.”
On the set of “Ms. Marvel,” she shares how she had to apply some of her advocacy even with more women working on that production.
“I think I made it quite clear in my first week that I built a career on telling men how they should behave around women,” she states. “I do not allow men to muscle me, and I certainly do not allow them to tell me what to do or not what to do. So even those that attempted to, tried, were quickly sort of told that that was not going to happen.”
The Future: Between Pakistan and Hollywood
And now that she has finished her first live action, scripted production, her plans have expanded. “I have been a documentary filmmaker for 20 years this year, and I will continue to use documentaries as a medium, but I find myself more drawn now at this point in my life, to telling stories through Hollywood narrative fiction,” she says.
However, she doesn’t plan to abandon her documentary-film roots. “I will be telling stories that have an underlying sort of theme or a connection, or something that in the layers of the story, you'll find that it is very meaningful, and that you'll walk away with the films or the TV series or whatever I create knowing that there was a mission behind it.”
Obaid-Chinoy was born in Pakistan. After high school, she came to the United States where she completed her undergraduate degree at Smith College and graduate school at Stanford University. Then, she shared her life and work between North America and Europe, before moving back to Pakistan in 2008, where she’s been working and raising her family ever since.
“I think that it is so important for people like myself, who are able to have a foot in the West and a foot in the East, to invest in the ecosystem for women, so that I could teach them film, or I could work on films, and to have more women like myself emerge from there,” she remarks.