Review: Saving Face
10.10.2012 - Pakistan: As a way of instilling
shame, perpetrators throw acid at their victims. An extensive
outreach program tries to raise awareness on the prevalence of acid
attacks around the world. Özge Calafato talks with the filmmakers
behind Saving Face which
will be screened in the Festival's Showcase section. Dr. Mohammad
Jawad will be in attendance.
Beginning with well-known UK-based plastic surgeon Dr. Mohammad
Jawad's trip to Pakistan to operate on acid attack victims, and
culminating in an Oscar, it has been an emotional journey for
Saving Face, a documentary about acid attack victims in
Pakistan and a doctor's journey to offer these victims a new lease
on life, and in the process, maybe find some redemption
Indeed, it seems that Saving Face was only the
beginning of something bigger: partnering with several
international NGOs, the filmmakers are now working on an extensive
outreach program to raise awareness on the prevalence of acid
attacks around the world.
"We actually have a chance to eradicate this problem," Daniel
In fact, the phenomenon is not limited to South Asia, although
many associate it with the region. From Columbia to Uganda, and
from Iran to Cambodia, acid attacks, in which perpetrators throw
acid at their victims, usually at the face, as punishment for some
perceived offense, is not uncommon. The majority of the victims are
women and children; meanwhile, the high-grade acid employed in the
attacks leaves the body with permanent, disfiguring burn marks,
scars and lesions, as well as occasionally causing blindness and
Almost 70% of acid attack victims are under the age of 18. In
Pakistan, acid attacks are justified as a method of punishment
doled out by husbands who seek to "restore their honour"; they do
so by disfiguring their wives who, they claim, have brought
"dishonour" to the family. Attacks often occur in areas suffering
from low levels of income and education, with little recourse to
courts. It is in these areas that attacks are most prevalent, where
women are powerless, and acid is within easy reach.
Saving Face follows multiple stories, starting with Dr.
Jawad's return to Pakistan, where he was born and trained as a
doctor, to perform facial reconstructive surgery on acid attack
victims. At the film's core we have the personal stories of two of
Dr. Jawad's patients: the 39-yearold Zakia, and the 23-year-old
Rukhsana, both victims of horrific acid attacks. Zakia, attacked
after filing for divorce, strives to find justice with the help of
her heroic lawyer Sarkar Abbas. Rukhsana, meanwhile, was forced to
reconcile with her husband and her in-laws after they attacked her;
she is now carrying her attacker's child.
The film provides an intimate window into the lives of these
characters, all of whom have bravely stepped up to tell their
stories, determined and unbowed, in the hopes that by raising
awareness, they will help in preventing other women from suffering
Özge Calafato talks to Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
following the film's Oscar win.
Let's start with how the story came about.
Daniel: I was listening to the story on British
model Katie Piper who was attacked with acid. When I heard she was
thanking her surgeon Muhammad Jawad, I thought, "That's not a very
British name". So I called him up and asked if he was aware of the
phenomenon of acid attacks in South Asia and the rest of the world.
Once I started filming with Dr. Jawad, it became immediately
apparent that I wouldn't be able to do this without a partner on
the ground. That's why I sought out, to me, in my mind, the
country's best filmmaker, Sharmeen Obaid- Chinoy.
Sharmeen: When Daniel asked me to be
co-director of Saving Face I immediately knew I wanted to
be on board. Acid violence impacts over a hundred women in rural
Pakistan every year but remains largely unreported to the police
and in the media. Many of the victims do not even receive adequate
treatment. I felt it was my duty as a Pakistani woman, and a
journalist, to shed light on the issue.
How did you choose and convince the two women in the
film to participate and tell their stories?
Sharmeen: Acid Survivors Foundation-Pakistan
(ASF-Pak) had established a formal apparatus in the region where
Saving Face was filmed. Dr. Jawad was also working with
ASF-Pak. We spent a lot of time with these survivors during pre
production, learning about their lives, getting to know them
personally, and earning their trust.
Daniel: Dr. Jawad saw between 12-20 patients
one day. There was one woman, Zakia, who wasn't planned to be
there: She elbowed her way in and was quite vigilant [sic] about
getting seen by the doctor. We could tell that Zakia wouldn't
accept anything but justice - that's why she'd be a great strong
central character for the film. It was important to include
Rukhsana, as in some ways she represents more the "victim", like
the mainstream of survivors. She's so disempowered that she doesn't
even know where to begin.
Acid attacks are particularly common in the
subcontinent. Do you see any particular cultural and social reasons
Sharmeen: Acid violence is most common in the
Seraiki belt of Pakistan, where SavingFace was
filmed. This area is characterized by low literacy levels and high
unemployment rates. These conditions contribute to the backward
mindsets of the people who have historically perceived women as
subordinate to men. Because acid disfigures its victims and is a
way of instilling shame, when women spurn the advances of men or
behave in a way that seems out of line, they will be brutally and
vengefully punished by this method.
Also, there are cases where the women family members will help
the man attack his wife. Of course, poor enforcement of law also
contributes to the a woman becomes a victim she is often shunned by
her own family or locked away, so as to hide the disgraceful act.
Culturally, women are dependent upon men for financial support and
so even if a woman is attacked by her husband she is usually forced
to reconcile with him and remain in his house. Even if her own
family looks past the shame and wants to support her, more often
than not, they cannot afford the additional burden.
Did you at times feel that you were putting Zakia and
Rukhsana in danger when exposing their stories?
Sharmeen: There is an entire process that the
production team must go through before, during and after the
production of a film. Ensuring the safety of the subjects remains a
Daniel: In fact, this is the biggest challenge
that we are facing in releasing the film in Pakistan. We will only
release it once we can guarantee the safety of the subjects.
How are Zakia and Rukhsana doing now? What changes in
their perspectives have you observed after the film?
Sharmeen: The most moving moment for me
personally was when Rukhsana decided to name her soon to be born
baby after Dr. Jawad as opposed to its father who was also her
(Rukhsana's) attacker. She has now moved out of her husband's home.
ASF-Pak is in the process of finding her safe housing. Zakia is
working towards rebuilding her life, now that her face is restored.
She is settling down with her son and young daughter, and searching
Following the boost from winning an Oscar, how will you
continue your fight against acid attacks?
Sharmeen: Over the next few months, Saving
Face will spearhead a national awareness campaign in which the
film will be screened at colleges, schools and community spaces.
Currently our partners are ASF-Pak, Islamic Help and Acid Survivors
Trust International. As of now, we have screenings of Saving Face
scheduled in the US and UK, and we will have similar events in
Pakistan in private settings.
Daniel: Sharmeen has already done two PSAs in
Pakistan to raise awareness. We're building tool kits of materials
using the film to be shared with victims, showing them what the
available resources are and what they can do. Our focus on
survivors includes raising funds for their legal fees, fees for
their housing needs and livelihood support such as vocational
training. [What] we're working on is the mapping of the attacks to
understand where exactly it's happening, in order to present to the
UN and other bigger bodies.
A more comprehensive law was passed in Bangladesh, coupled with
an extensive awareness campaign. The decrease in acid attacks is
incredible, as much as 4000%. At the very least I heard that it's a
20% reduction per year. And that was achieved without an
Daniel and Sharmeen reiterate that no part of Pakistani society
condones acid attacks. Seeing the survivors onscreen is as shocking
to Pakistanis as it is to anyone else. The good news is that
Saving Face has been embraced by policymakers in Pakistan
- who have, in turn, awarded Sharmeen with Pakistan's highest
civilian honour and more legislative measures are on the way.
This article was published in the 94. issue of the DOX
Magazine. Please visit the website for the original version: www.dox.mono.net