It became the surprise success of the Oscars. Saving Face, a documentary about the true cost of the deliberate disfigurement of women in Pakistan, attracted worldwide attention, and not just for lifting the veil on a hitherto little-known world. its director, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, also became the first person from Pakistan to win an Oscar.
The success of the documentary, which will have its UK premiere at the Human Rights Watch film festival on 28 March, also put the spotlight on Pakistan’s fledgling film industry, which has recently emerged from the shadows of the behemoth that is its Indian neighbour, Bollywood. Several Pakistani films have received international acclaim, including last year’s transsexual-son drama Bol and the country’s much-anticipated first ever English-language film, Waar, about the “war on terror”.
Speaking to the Guardian, Chinoy said: “It’s an indescribable feeling. I am humbled and honoured that my work has received such acclaim. This has reinforced my belief that hard work and dedication will be appreciated at the highest level. I had the opportunity to meet actors and directors that I grew up with. We gave copies of Saving Face to Brad Pitt and George Clooney, and it was incredible to meet them on an equal footing, and that too while representing Pakistan.”
Karachi-born Chinoy is no stranger to bringing controversial issues to the screen. she was the first journalist to be allowed to film in Saudi Arabia about its fledgling women’s rights movement, and also directed a documentary about Pakistan’s transgender community, which was shown on Channel 4.
She became involved in Saving Face after being approached by co-director Daniel Junge, who was inspired by an interview with British plastic surgeon Mohammad Jawad, whose mercy mission from London’s Harley Street to his homeland to perform free reconstructive surgery on victims is featured in the documentary.
“I was immediately drawn to the subject matter, and thought that Daniel and I would work well together,” said Chinoy. “By making Saving Face, I realised that acid violence exists in a cultural context, and that the narrative doesn’t end when the attack occurs.”
Statistics make the plight of women in Pakistan far from comfortable reading. a survey by Trust Law ranked Pakistan the third most dangerous place for women in the world, after the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, nearly 700 women were victims of honour killings in the period between 2009-2010, and 90% of women have been victims of domestic violence – of which acid attacks are one of the most extreme forms. Cases such as the gang rape of Mukhtaran Mai (most of whose alleged attackers were freed) have exposed the difficulties faced by women fighting for justice in Pakistan.
In fact, one of the most shocking aspects of the documentary is the role of women in perpetrating violence against other women. This is illustrated by the case of Rukhsana, one of the women portrayed in the film, a happily married mother of two who was attacked by her in-laws. Poverty forced her to return to live with them, and she was only able to see her children from behind a wall.
“In 2007, I travelled to Afghanistan to make a film called Lifting the Veil. I met a number of women who had kerosene thrown on them by female in-laws. I learned early on that woman-on-woman violence does occur in certain parts of the world,” says Chinoy. “Such occurrences are difficult to digest. however, one has to address this issue within the cultural context: woman-on-woman acid violence is more about power than gender. It’s painful, as one would assume that women would help other women.”
However, Chinoy finds the positive in the stories she tells. despite its harrowing subject matter, she describes Saving Face as a feelgood story, focusing on the courage of the victims and the strength of those who help them. “Violence against women is strongly condemned in the media, education and legal system in Pakistan. Many organisations are actively engaged in bettering the lives of women, and experiencing tremendous results.”
Chinoy believes that being a woman in Pakistan is far from the hopeless situation that is often portrayed, and considers herself an example of the potential of women in her homeland. “I grew up in Karachi, a booming, diverse city that offers many opportunities and avenues for exploration. While growing up, I never felt like my upbringing was different than it would be had I grown up anywhere else in the world. I have never been discriminated against due to my gender in Pakistan.
“Pakistani women are able to vote, drive and travel at will, which isn’t the case in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Pakistani women are also running large businesses, and many universities boast a higher number of female students than male. although there are many Pakistani women who cannot enjoy these liberties, there are many who do. It’s our responsibility to bridge that gap.”