The first female "Star Wars" movie director says, "I'm ready for that challenge"

Two-time Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy on making viewers uncomfortable and her Diane von Furstenberg film

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 18, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

“Sometimes holding up a mirror to society makes people uncomfortable,” says director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. “When they don't like to see a reflection of themselves, they like to shoot the messenger." The multiple Academy Award and Emmy Award-winning director and activist has spent her career elevating the stories of women “who rise like warriors." She makes films about tough topics like honor killings and acid attacks. But for her, the idea of women who rise takes many different forms. 

In the illuminating new Hulu documentary, “Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge, ” (co-directed with Trish Dalton) Obaid-Chinoy now explores the life of the groundbreaking designer and entrepreneur. “Every woman watching this can resonate with Diane's struggles as a single working mother, as well as a woman who was trying to make it in a man's world,” says Obaid-Chinoy. Up next, the director has made history as the first woman and first person of color to helm a “Star Wars” feature. And though she acknowledges that “There is always going to be some form of resistance from people who are not familiar with seeing people like me in places where I have found myself,” she feels fine. As she told me during our recent "Salon Talks" conversation, “I’m ready for that challenge.” 

Watch my interview with Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy here on YouTube or read our conversation below.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

This project is a little different from the films you have done in the past.  Tell me how you wound up involved in this.

"Diane's history has been interwoven with the history of the world."

I've always told stories about women who are faced with extraordinary circumstances and who rise like warriors and take on those challenges. Diane's life is very much in that vignette. You think of Diane as the fashion designer and as the woman who was on the cover of Newsweek when she was 22 years old. But Diane's life and the tapestry of her life starts from World War II, which is when her mother went to Auschwitz. She's a child of a Holocaust survivor. She says her birth was also a miracle. Diane's history has been interwoven with the history of the world — 1950s and '60s in Europe, '70s in New York City, completely different from the New York City you see today. In telling Diane's story, we're also telling the story of the times that she has lived through. That's what really drew me to this project.

She was drawn to you, right? She reached out to you.

Diane and I have known each other for the better part of the last decade. We met on stage, so it's befitting that I'm bringing her life onto the stage. She gave me the Glamour Woman of the Year award in 2013. We were on stage at Carnegie Hall. The first time I met her, she was wearing this glittery outfit and she came out with this red award and handed it to me. I had brought with me Zakia [Parveen], who was the protagonist of my film in 2012 that won the Academy Award. She had had acid thrown on her face, and her face had been scarred badly. I get the award. Diane, myself and Zakia go backstage, and at Carnegie Hall you have to get into an elevator to go to the green room, so the three of us walk into the elevator, and the elevator has mirrors.

Naturally, women gravitate to look at themselves. Diane told me later that she had told herself not to so as not to offend Zakia, but when we got into the elevator, the first thing Zakia did was look at herself in the mirror and start smiling. Diane thought that was so powerful that life has thrown so much at her and she's taken that adversity and converted it into her strength. We instantly bonded over that moment. In fact, it's in Diane's book. We kept in touch after that. 

Over the years, Diane tried to involve me in another project where she wanted me to tell the stories of the women who she's been giving awards to at the DVF Awards. That project didn't work out, and I told her then that, "Diane, you need to tell your story. That's the story that needs to be told." She said, "I'm not ready to tell that story." Then a few years later, Fabiola [Beracasa], who's our producer, came to me and said, "Diane is ready to tell her story, and she wants you to be the one to do it."

I knew about her love life. I knew about her sex life. I did not know her relationship with a woman when she was at university. Sexuality is part of her life, she's always owned it, but she's owning it on a next level in this film.

Diane, as Nathan, her creative director, said in the film, is sexy. She has always owned who she is. I think that is the beauty of her narrative, which is that, be who you want to be in that moment. She fell in love with a girl when she was in boarding school and then she fell in love with a boy. Her sexual fluidity is about people and who she's attracted to at that time. I think that it's liberating in this environment to have a powerhouse like her say, "I don't want a label. I love who I want to love." That's the peeling of the onion as a filmmaker we did. We sat with her for countless hours and talked to her about what her life has been like. With each sitting, she allowed us into a deeper inner sanctum of her life.

She says she lived her life as a man would. She turned down a hookup with Bowie and Jagger. Hooked up with Warren Beatty and Ryan O'Neal in the same weekend. She's just out there living her life at a time when not a lot of women had the freedom or autonomy to do that in a way that they weren't judged.

Why can a man live his life the way he wants to? Why can't a woman? Men live their lives the way they want to and they're celebrated for it. It's about time that women live their lives out in the open and were celebrated for it as well, for their choices. 

Diane being open about her relationships and the people she's been with is incredible because it really does show you that you should be able to talk about your life and the way that you've led your life. Women today hide behind this persona that society imposes on us, these boxes and labels and glass ceilings. We want to fit into everything. Diane has gone and taken a club and broken that completely and shattered it and said, "No, let's own up to who we are and be truthful."

Living the way she was 50 years ago, it is a rebuke to this idea that sexual fluidity or non-monogamy or any of the other expressions we may have of our sexuality are somehow new. People have been living and loving freely forever. Diane was.

In the film, you are in Studio 54. There is no greater time for free love than in the two years where Studio 54 was in New York City. This is before the clamp down of the Reagan era. That was a time of free love. It was a very different time. The acceptance that happened at that time for side relationships, it's not as accepting today as it was then. The world was a far more accommodating place in the 1970s than it is in 2024.

She is this self-made business person. She has created an empire on her own. She's doing this also as a single mother. She’s this glamorous icon. She has these high profile of lovers. She’s also raising two children.

Every woman watching this can resonate with Diane's struggles as a single working mother as well as a woman who was trying to make it in a man's world, trying to set up a business at a time when women needed men to co-sign for something as little as a credit card. She was trying to set up a business, traveling around America, trying to sell her dresses. That’s the part that she has led, the difficulties, the constant juggling of having two young children and thinking about them and thinking about how she's going to grow her business and what she's going to do, how she's going to reinvent herself.

She came to America as a very young woman and America was not a familiar place for her. She came here to set up her home and her life, but this is not a place where she grew up. Not only was she a new immigrant to America, she was a young mother. She was setting up her business. She was trying to navigate a very different world then she had been brought up in. Within that construct, so many parallels for women today who would see a reflection of their own lives in that and how children see their parents, especially working mothers. Do you have enough time for us? The guilt that mothers carry when they're thinking about, should I travel to Oklahoma in the morning and do that meeting or should I attend the parent-teacher meeting at my child's school? This is very relatable. While Diane is this big global stage person, the idea is to pare back and really look at Diane at home, Diane with her kids as well.

She is succeeding above and beyond many of her peers in the fashion industry and she is also doing it in a way that is unapologetically feminine. Her tagline is "Wear the Dress." It is embracing both of those sides of herself and doing it in a way that says, I can be in a man's world and I can do it in high heels and a dress. I can do it the way that I want to look, the way that I want to live.

We need to set the stage for what the world was like at that time. Women were being told constantly, "Dress like men if you want to be taken seriously. Don't be feminine. Put on this slightly more masculine persona so you can be taken seriously. Wear pants." Diane came along and was wearing fishnet stockings and a dress and being very sexy and being successful and challenging that idea that women had to be like men in order to be successful. Women should be women.

"She has always owned who she is."

She was at malls in America telling women to be women, "Spend five minutes, do your makeup, look after yourself, take charge of your own life." It's something that she's been honing in from a very young age and imparting to other women. Be in charge of your life, make your own decisions, find your own self-worth. Hold on to that. Those are very important lessons for all of us to learn. Even today, women in the workforce hesitate. Should I wear that stocking? Should I wear a pair of pants? Am I going to be taken seriously if I wear too much makeup? If I have one extra button open, how will I be perceived? I think that Diane was like, "I don't really care. This is who I am," and that is so liberating to watch.

When you talk about women in charge, this is a movie that you co-direct with someone else, wrangling some of the biggest heavyweights in the world in this movie. You've got Gloria Steinem, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Oprah Winfrey. What was it like gathering that level of talent and getting them to talk about this woman and the larger context of women in the world?

It took a village to get everyone involved into the film. We divided and conquered. Fabiola, our producer, and Tracy Wood found the people that Trish and I wanted to interview and wrangled them to come in and be interviewed. Let me just say that when people heard it was a film for Diane, everyone wanted to be part of it. It was just managing all of these people's schedules, as you can imagine. All of Diane's friends, colleagues, everyone brought a very different insight into her life. Her family, first of all, provided some of the most honest testimonies I have ever heard. Her children talking about her, Barry [Diller, her husband], talking about her, and then her friends. Hillary set the stage for what the world was like. So did Oprah. Gloria talked about the real contributions Diane has made, and Marc Jacobs really set the stage of what fashion was like at that time, especially when Diane took the leap of faith to go to QVC.

I want to also ask about some of the things you've been working on. I’ve heard you talk about the cost of doing the filmmaking that you have done and the price that you have had to pay. You have said you have been threatened, you've been harassed, you have read things in the press about you that were absolutely not true

I started my career by making films in war zones about marginalized communities and about women on the front lines. Sometimes holding up a mirror to society makes people uncomfortable. When they don't like to see a reflection of themselves, they like to shoot the messenger. I found that I was in the line of fire early in my career, but my mother said something to me that I think has really kept me going, which is "Only listen to the voices that cheer you to the finish line and drown out all the other noise." I feel like I've done that throughout my career.

When you walk on a yellow brick road that you create, there is always going to be some form of resistance from people who are not familiar with seeing people like me in places where I have found myself, on podiums and in rooms that have previously been closed to people like myself. Some people find it hard to navigate having someone like me in those spaces, but that has to also come from the fact that places of power, especially when it comes to film, have been held by such few people that now that the doors are opening to others. It’s going to take a little bit of time for them to become okay with having representation of different shades and places and colors. I, for one, feel like I'm ready for that challenge.

The next new big challenge is Star Wars. Stepping into a project like that, what have you been learning along the way? 

“Star Wars” is this incredible franchise that was set up by George Lucas that really changed the way so many people in the saw the world. It's such a deep legacy, and so many other filmmakers have walked in those footsteps. I think that I'm going to be one of those filmmakers. Every filmmaker has brought a fresh perspective, a set of experiences to that.

I'm most excited about creating a story that has Rey Skywalker, Daisy Ridley at the center of it, a Jedi Academy, taking Rey's story in the future. I bring with me my experience in storytelling, in creating characters that are faced with extraordinary challenges. That's what “Star Wars” is all about. At the end of the day, if we can create films that bring young people into the cinema and did what George did in the 1970s and '80s, if I can be part of that and I can help bring new fans into “Star Wars,” then I feel like I've done my job. That's when my work will really be judged.


By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Diane Von Furstenberg Documentary Movies Salon Talks Sharmeen Obaid-chinoy Star Wars