Just as the credits for Saving Face rolled, I sent Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy a text message: “I can’t remember the last time a movie made me cry.” She called me back almost instantaneously, incredulous. It made me cry? Me? And so I decided to admit it in print — yes, I cried when I watched Saving Face. It’s just that poignant a story. And the fact that it’s a story so close to home, with the added connotation and significance of an Academy Award nomination — the first for Pakistan, as it has been said over and over again, but really, that sentence cannot be said enough times, because how often do we get a ‘first’ that doesn’t fall within the ambit of extraordinary acts of violence, terrorism or a myriad of development-related issues?
The first three minutes of the film are brutal. An estimated 100 acid attacks are reported annually in Pakistan; many remain unreported. And the common thread running through stories of these attacks is that of rejection — “I was 13 years old at the time of the attack … I refused the advances of my school teacher and his friend and then he threw acid on me,” “The first time he threw acid on me, it was on my shoulder. A year later, he returned and threw acid in my face. Because we rejected his proposal.” When Zakia, one of the focal characters in the film, tries to divorce her husband, a drug addict and alcoholic, he douses her in battery acid outside the courthouse.
As these women narrate stories of immense suffering, their tenacity is apparent — they continue to care for their children (one woman returns to her husband, even after he threw acid on her and her sister-in-law threw gasoline on her, for the sake of her children), dress in hues of pistachio and fuschia, wear bangles and make-up, comfort each other through any available forum and aggressively press for legislative change. While the documentary narrates the slow cycle of change through transformation with a focus on the work of Dr Mohammad Jawad, a plastic surgeon specialising in reconstructive surgery, the ‘change’ here is more than cosmetic. These women are not counting on a beautiful face in order to go about their lives as before — as one woman says in an Acid Survivors Foundation group session, “It took us a while to gather courage. We used to be so scared at first. But now we have no such tensions.” They find some semblance of closure with the passing of the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill and a landmark judgement for one of the film’s characters, a twist that the film-makers did not expect.
While we have celebrated Chinoy’s achievement, we have judged her work in equal measure. As a recent comment on Facebook put it, her work is “capitalising on Western fears and projecting imbalanced views … a good representation of colonial mindset.” Additionally, critics of Saving Face say Chinoy is merely retreading ground already exhaustively covered by reporters for years in Pakistan — the ire here is also partly directed at the cache that comes with having an international brand back your work, as opposed to the significantly lower level of attention we give to similar work in local media and by local researchers and academicians. Is this a new story? No. It is one story among thousands that focuses on two survivors of acid attacks. This precise focus and the intimate treatment of the documentary’s subjects makes it clear that this film is not trying to be, should not and will not be the final word on such stories from Pakistan.
As for the oft-repeated criticism about pandering to a Western market for sensationalist stories about Pakistan: had Chinoy made a film that categorically focused on the failings of society and governance that allows such horrific crimes to take place, the sympathies of the religiously-inclined towards the perpetrators of such crimes and a culture that allows women to be treated in such a manner, often as punishment for seeking emancipation, she wouldn’t be putting our best face forward, but it certainly would be one of our many faces, and unfortunately, the guise within which much of the West recognises and identifies us.
Saving Face aired on HBO on March 8. It premiered at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London at the Curzon Soho on March 28.