‘There is a story here, Sharmeen, and it is a remarkable one.” These were the first words that Daniel Junge said to me two years ago, over a static-ridden phone line from Denver. The Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker had recently spoken with Dr. Mohammad Jawad, a Pakistani-British plastic surgeon who regularly visits Pakistan to perform reconstructive surgery on survivors of acid violence, the horrific practice of throwing disfiguring chemicals onto the faces of women. Over the past several years, more than 150 cases of acid violence have been reported annually in the country where I grew up and where I have made a number of my films.
Most survivors do not have the resources to seek treatment for their burns. Daniel was in the process of producing a film that would celebrate Dr. Jawad’s efforts, and he was inviting me to direct it with him. The moment I hung up on my end of the line in Karachi, I dived into the project.
Being from Pakistan – as a Pakistani-Canadian, I also live about a third of the year in Toronto – I was certainly aware of acid violence. Acid attacks have been going on in countries as varied as Cambodia, Thailand, Bangladesh, India and Afghanistan for a decade now. They first appeared in Pakistan about five years ago. Most attacks take place in rural areas, where rates of unemployment and illiteracy are high, acid (used to wash cotton) is widely available, and misogyny is rampant. Being based myself in Karachi, far from the agrarian Saraiki region in the province of Punjab, where most attacks occur, I had spent no time with survivors, nor had I worked with organizations that support them.
As our team delved into research and production, our findings shocked me. Most cases of acid violence are motivated by the concept of shame. Scorned lovers, rejected marriage suitors and abusive husbands attack women with the bald intention to dishonour, control and hurt them.
During our work, we came to know about the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), an organization that rehabilitates victims by providing free medical treatment and counselling. ASF guided us through the Saraiki region, and introduced us to survivors and their families. Many of the victims were young and unmarried; all faced tenuous futures. Married women were often compelled to remain with the very husbands who had disfigured them – they simply didn’thave the resources to support their children independently.
It was difficult to reconcile the lives of these women with my own reality, and to come to terms with the fact that such acts occurred in a country I call home. The anger and frustration that I felt only strengthened my resolve to produce a film that could combat such narratives with an alternative one – one that would focus on the individuals who dedicated their lives to ridding Pakistan of what Dr. Jawad aptly calls “a disease.”
Saving Face also became the story of two extraordinary survivors: Zakia and Rukhsana. At the time of shooting, Zakia – a mother of three, and the wife of an alcoholic, drug-addicted gambler named Pervez, who had hurled acid onto her face in broad daylight and in front of several witnesses – was in the midst of fighting him in court. She was represented by Sarkar Abass, an eminent lawyer who had taken her case pro bono.
Rukhsana, the mother of two small children, lived in a village in southern Punjab. While asleep, she had been doused with petrol and acid by her husband and mother-in-law, who then set her on fire and locked her in a room. When I met Rukhsana’s husband, he protested his innocence, and insisted that 99 per cent of victims had burned themselves and were simply passing the blame to their husbands.
During shooting, Zakia and Rukhsana were poised to seek treatment with Dr. Jawad. At about the same time, Pakistan-based Valerie Khan, who runs ASF, was working with female parliamentarians to pass the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill of 2011. She encouraged many survivors – including Rukhsana – to testify before parliament.
When the bill was brought, there was a palpable sense of urgency in the air. Parliamentarians from different backgrounds came forward to present a unified voice. Sentiments of change echoed throughout the assembly, and as I looked around, I was filled with a hope that can only be felt when you realize that you are part of something bigger than yourself. I watched as spirited women parliamentarians, including Marvi Memon, Farahnaz Ispahani and Donya Aziz, made impassioned speeches that echoed one clear message: Women were demanding change. The bill was passed unanimously.
Around this same time – though not under the new law – Zakia’s husband was tried, and given two life sentences. Although the right side of her face had completely melted off after the attack, after surgeries more than 70 per cent of the damage is now repaired. Rukhsana, whose entire face and neck had been melted by acid, but who was too poor to leave her husband, became pregnant while waiting for justice. She has now given birth, which will allow surgery on her scars to begin in two weeks’ time. She is currently working with ASF to figure out ways to live independently and educate her children.
It was a privilege to spend time with both women, and to have the opportunity to tell their stories to a world-wide audience. When we wrapped shooting, I was certain that we had a strong message. However, no filmmaker can predict how audiences will receive their film.
I was in my office in Karachi in late January, surrounded by colleagues, when I learned that Saving Face had been nominated for an Academy Award. The office erupted in shouts and tears of joy. It was an indescribable and surreal feeling, one that didn’t fully sink in until I entered the Kodak Theatre last Sunday. When Saving Face was announced as the winner of best documentary short, I froze in my seat. It was only when I saw Daniel bounding down the stairs that I realized our film had won.
At first glance, Saving Face is a heartbreaking depiction of a heinous crime that highlights alarming realities in Pakistani society. However, the film also celebrates the survivors of acid attacks – and those who have stepped up to help them: a selfless doctor; tireless parliamentarians; intrepid organizations that rehabilitate survivors and help them get the treatment they need.
The film’s message ultimately shines through the women who want their stories to be catalysts of critical conversation – and change. Above all, Saving Face is the story of a nation that is realizing it cannot hide behind its flaws, but must fight them together. No one would claim that acid attacks are now a thing of the past simply because legislation has been passed. But I’d like to think that Saving Face offers genuine hope that Pakistan can fix its problems – that when we come together as a nation, we are nothing short of invincible.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is currently developing an animated cartoon series about superheroes for children in Pakistan.
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