Students inspired by filmmaker

How can one person make a difference in world problems?

Students at Providence High School got a powerful lesson on that topic Monday when Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy brought her activist message to the school.

“Students have more voice than they think they do,” said rising senior Nick Elliott, founder of the Voices Activated club that sponsored the documentary filmmaker's visit.

Elliott, for example, has already lined up 12 local bands for a benefit concert next fall to raise money for Darfur refugees.

He also wants to build schools in Afghanistan – a goal strengthened by Obaid-Chinoy's talk about how much one person can accomplish for global good.

For documentaries that have aired on CNN and PBS, Obaid-Chinoy, 29, has traveled to Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries to spotlight the struggles of ordinary people.

In Pakistan, for example, she filmed an 18-year-old injured when he stopped the attempted suicide bombing of a mosque. Terrorists later threatened his life, so Obaid-Chinoy helped him seek asylum in Canada.

“The world is so connected now that many of us can be activists just by sitting at home,” she told a crowd of about 75 students and adults. The filmmaker proved this herself when an e-mail she sent to a group of journalists got the ball rolling for the 18-year-old's asylum.

Students in Providence's Voices Activated club were encouraged by Obaid-Chinoy's stories – especially since she began her activism as a teenager.

“The fact that she's on that stage shows me that if I do get this started, it might go somewhere,” rising junior Sarah Robins said of her plans to help women and children in need.

Club founder Elliott has already asked Obaid-Chinoy for advice on his plans to travel to Afghanistan after graduation to build schools and make his own documentary film.

Club co-president Eleanor Gwynne seized on Obaid-Chinoy's idea for collecting books to send to Afghan schools. “That would be easy” for Providence students to do, the rising senior said.

For some high school students, community service is just something that looks good on a college application, said Providence English teacher Vivian Connell, adviser for Voices Activated.

The club aims to go beyond that. “These kids,” she said, “want to learn how to be activists.”

The group got its start in her world lit class last year after a discussion about extreme poverty in Afghanistan.

We need to do something,” Elliott told his teacher after class.

Voices Activated grew from there and was approved as a club earlier this year.

Monday's program was the group's first big event. Obaid-Chinoy also showed her latest documentary, “Iraq: The Lost Generation,” Monday evening at Ballantyne Village.

Club members left the Providence High program inspired by something the filmmaker's parents told her:

If you speak for truth and justice, you will find people to join you.