Saving Face, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short, highlights the issue of acid attacks against women in Pakistan. About 150 cases are reported each year in that country, which is one of a dozen or so to experience this form of violence. But incidents are likely underreported.
U.S. filmmaker Daniel Junge, 42, teamed up with Pakistani director Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, 33, to tell the story of Rukhsana and Zakia, two Pakistani mothers disfigured when their husbands threw acid –known as “tezaab” or “sharp water” in Urdu—on them. In the film, Zakia, 39, decides to take on her ex-husband in court, in a landmark case testing a new Pakistani law punishing perpetrators of acid violence. Rukhsana, 25 and pregnant, remains with her abusive husband. Both seek medical help from Mohammed Jawad, a Pakistani-born plastic surgeon who earns his living by performing cosmetic surgery in the United Kingdom but devotes part of every year to pro bono work in Pakistan reconstructing the faces of women who have suffered acid burns.
Saving Face airs this evening at 8:30 p.m. ET on HBO.
Do you think your film’s Oscar will have an impact in Pakistan?
Daniel Junge: The global platform we have now is unparalleled. Sharmeen has been completely embraced by the government of Pakistan. They’re awarding her the country’s highest civilian honor. This means they’re accountable now for this problem and might have the ability to eradicate it.
Has the film been shown there yet?
We hope to show the film in Pakistan, but we need to ensure the women’s safety first.
Sharmeen is the first Pakistani director to be honored with an Academy Award. How does that feel?
Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy: It’s incredible the Academy has given an Oscar for a film on such an important subject and to a team of Pakistanis and American filmmakers. It showed me that you can be anyone and do good work and it will be appreciated.
What’s been the reaction of Rukhsana and Zakia to the Oscar win?
Chinoy: They’re both very delighted and excited that acid violence has received global attention. But they’re not used to being exposed to attention and the media, so they’re slightly apprehensive, especially Zakia, because her ex-husband has appealed [his conviction] to a high court.
How did you contact with these women initially and establish trust so that they felt comfortable telling their stories?
Chinoy: The Acid Survivors Foundation [a Pakistani charity] connected us with those women, and because I’m Pakistani, I was able to connect with them and made them feel comfortable. I was allowed into this inner sanctum, which is very rare. We treated them with dignity and respect.
Mohammed Jawad, the plastic surgeon who volunteers his services to help reconstruct the women’s faces, says at one point in the film that he feels a moral obligation to do the work that he does. Do you feel the same way as a filmmaker?
Chinoy: There is a moral obligation to tell these stories and make Pakistan a better place to live in, to effect change and mobilize change. We are privileged and educated and if we don’t do it, who will?
Do you see yourselves as journalists or activists? A little of both?
Chinoy: I was born an activist. I became a journalist but I will always be an activist. All my films are centered on activism, whether they take place in Canada, Sweden, or Pakistan. My motivation in all these films is, does [the subject] make me angry? Are others not talking about it? If not, why not? I choose topics that make people uncomfortable.
Junge: I don’t see myself as an activist. I am a filmmaker first and foremost. There’s no better dramatic conflict than in social justice situations around the world. If my films are able to help effect change, then I sleep better at night. I have the highest regard for activists. But as a filmmaker, I’d get tripped up by that.
Sharmeen, both you and Dr. Jawad are Pakistanis who also have lived elsewhere—he in the UK and you in the U.S. and Canada. But it’s been important to you both to go back and devote yourselves to working in Pakistan. Do you identify with Dr. Jawad?
Chinoy: It’s hard not to identify with Dr. Jawad. When I first met him, he gave me an analogy that Pakistan is like a sick, dying mother who needs her sons and daughters to come home and help her recover. So the doctors and lawyers and engineers who left, the onus is on all these people to come back. We are the first to criticize ourselves, we should be the first to help. Now I spend more time in Pakistan. I have moved back and I am working on a lot of projects there.
One of the most disturbing scenes in the film is when Rukhsana’s husband denies any role in her injuries and says she inflicted them on herself. Then he says, “Ninety-nine percent of all women burn themselves alive.” What was it like to hear him say that?
Chinoy: I had to restrain myself from punching his face out! It was very hard to hear that. But it provides us with an understanding of what some men believe, and what these women are up against. You realize they have no exposure or education. He would have benefited from state education.
Is education the way to end this violence?
Chinoy: There’s no single solution. There also has to be advocacy on the ground and a greater understanding of the impact on women–that this is one of the unmanliest things to do.
The film ends after Rukhsana has given birth to her baby and has to wait for her reconstructive surgery. How is she now?
Chinoy: Rukhsana went back to her husband [at first but] now has left for the Acid Survivors Foundation [a safe house]. Dr. Jawad has had to wait to do the surgery because she was breastfeeding her baby, but he will do the surgery in the coming months.
Your Oscar win helps shine a spotlight on Pakistani film, about which the world knows very little. What’s happening in the Pakistani film industry?
Chinoy: We had a very vibrant film industry in the 50s and 60s but it died when [1980s military dictator] General Zia ul Haq killed art and culture that was not within the confines of Islam. Now, 25 or 30 years later, there’s a generation of filmmakers eager to tell stories. And now it’s easier to tell stories, but we don’t have enough filmmakers to teach the basics, so sometimes the quality isn’t up to par. I recently started teaching a filmmaking class and am mentoring younger filmmakers. We should have an in-house pool to draw from rather than relying on help from outside.
Toward the end of the film, Dr. Jawad says that by doing his work, “I am saving my own face, because I’m part of a society that has this disease” of acid violence. The perpetrators of the violence also feel, in a way that’s less easy to understand, that their honor is at stake—in Zakia’s husband’s case, his honor was wounded because she wanted to divorce him. What does honor mean in the context of the film?
Junge: Honor is a malleable thing, isn’t it? Jawad sees people [like the perpetrators] using “dignity” in the wrong way. I hope in the case of our film, we give voice to the most honorable thing, which is human beings helping others and making the world a better place.
What’s next for both of you?
Junge: I’m working on a film called Alpha Boys, about a school for disadvantaged boys in Jamaica that gave birth to reggae, and two other films.
Chinoy: I’m working on an animated superhero series called Super Jawan [Jawan means young], with a cast of three—one girl and two boys. There’s such a void in children’s programming in Pakistan and this is a great vehicle.