April issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 12 years ago

Zakiya loved being photographed. That was before her husband threw acid on her face. From then on, Zakiya wore a burqa that covered her face and black sunglasses to shield her eyes, one of which she lost in the attack.

This story could have ended in tragedy. But it didn’t. It in fact became the Oscar-winning documentary film,Saving Face, that earned Pakistan some rare good press, its directors Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and Daniel Junge international acclaim, and its characters — the determinedly brave Zakiya and the jovial miracle-maker Dr Mohammad Ali Jawad — immense respect.

Saving Face follows the lives of two women, Zakiya and Rukhsana, both survivors of acid attacks by their husbands, whose facial and emotional scars are treated by Dr Jawad, a UK-based plastic surgeon.

Using artificial skin grafts, Dr Jawad reconstructs Zakiya’s left cheek, works on her lips and where his talent falls short, arranges for a Dubai-based expert in facial prosthesis to fashion an eye-piece that will cover her missing optical organ. Multiple surgeries later, Zakiya walks without her veil in public for the first time. She also has her picture taken.

The other woman being treated by Dr Jawad is the less fortunate Rukhsana; she has had to return to live with her husband, who poured acid on her face, and in-laws who poured petrol over her and set her on fire. Mother of a daughter she cannot abandon, she has nowhere else to go.

“This is where my life ended,” says a despondent Rukhsana, unable to shake the horror that she must relive every day. It is only when she learns of her pregnancy that she begins to imagine a future. She prays for a boy. Speaking from experience, “A girl’s life is risky,” she says.

This and other significant moments are caught on tape: a support group meeting at the Acid Survivors Foundation where several women with charred faces share their experiences, laugh and give each other confidence; Zakiya’s visit to her lawyer to receive the triumphant news of her husband’s conviction; and the birth of Rukhsana’s baby boy who gives her hope for the future.

Obaid Chinoy’s detractors, and there are a few, condemn her for making “a career out of trashing Pakistan.” While Chinoy has been quoted as saying that she’s not a PR person for her country, Saving Face sends a powerful message about Pakistan. True, it highlights a heinous crime against women. But it doesn’t stop there.

It shows that we are aware of the grave crimes being perpetrated against women and trying to address the issue and do something meaningful for the victims. Through the charitable work of a dedicated individual who travels to Pakistan periodically to perform free surgeries on acid burn survivors. Through the collective efforts of women lawmakers who bring to the floor of the Parliament a bill to criminalise and punish perpetrators of acid violence. Through members of parliament who unanimously pass this bill into law — the Acid and Burn Crimes Act 2012. Through the bravery of Zakiya who takes her husband to court for his act of violence against her. And finally, through the court that convicts him and sentences him to two life terms.

As Obaid Chinoy told the Globe and Mail on March 2, 2012: “Above all, Saving Face is the story of a nation that is realising it cannot hide behind its flaws but must fight them together.”

Her sentiments were echoed by speakers at a press conference organised by the Acid Survivors Foundation in Islamabad in the wake of the Oscar win: “We have a problem, we own it and the citizens of Pakistan are striving to find solutions and stand by the victims.”

The film itself strikes a wonderful balance. The images of the melted, scarred faces of the women invoke a sense of horror and tragedy. The callousness and utter lack of remorse of the men who threw acid on them provokes anger. Both these responses are offset by a certain levity, a lightness of being, infused into the narrative by the cheerfulness and humour of the good doctor.

In a reflective mood, Dr Jawad says in the film that he feels “part of the society that caused the disease.” And he coins the phrase that becomes the title of the film when he says, “In a way I am saving my own face.”

In the same way, Saving Face is helping Pakistan ‘save face’ — by not only showing the world that we can on occasion rise from the ashes to ascend to the greatest heights of art and journalism, but by also showing the world that we are a nation beginning to take ownership of our future.

In the incisive words of Steve Coll posted on the New Yorker on March 1: “Pakistan seems to be emerging from the heaviest shadows of its recent crises… the space for speech and dissent is enlarging in bracing ways…. the country’s potential to identify and respond to its crises through uncensored politics, art, journalism, and social activism is becoming far greater…”

Saving Face may well be our saving grace.

This film review was originally published in the April 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “Saving Grace.”