Beginning with well-known UK-based plastic surgeon Dr. Mohammad Jawad’s trip to Pakistan to operate on acid attack victims, and culminating in an Oscar, it has been an emotional journey for Saving Face, a documentary about acid attack victims in Pakistan and a doctor’s journey to offer these victims a new lease on life, and in the process, maybe find some redemption himself.

Indeed, it seems that Saving Face was only the beginning of something bigger: partnering with several international NGOs, the filmmakers are now working on an extensive outreach program to raise awareness on the prevalence of acid attacks around the world. “We actually have a chance to eradicate this problem,” Daniel Junge says.

In fact, the phenomenon is not limited to South Asia, although many associate it with the region. From Columbia to Uganda, and from Iran to Cambodia, acid attacks, in which perpetrators throw acid at their victims, usually at the face, as punishment for some perceived offense, is not uncommon. The majority of the victims are women and children; meanwhile, the high-grade acid employed in the attacks leaves the body with permanent, disfiguring burn marks, scars and lesions, as well as occasionally causing blindness and bone deformation. Almost 70% of acid attack victims are under the age of 18.

 In Pakistan, acid attacks are justified as a method of punishment doled out by husbands who seek to “restore their honor”; they do so by disfiguring their wives who, they claim, have brought “dishonor” to the family. Attacks often occur in areas suffering from low levels of income and education, with little recourse to courts. It is in these areas that attacks are most prevalent, where women are powerless, and acid is within easy reach.

Saving Face follows multiple stories, starting with Dr. Jawad’s return to Pakistan, where he was born and trained as a doctor, to perform facial reconstructive surgery on acid attack victims. At the film’s core we have the personal stories of two of Dr. Jawad’s patients: the 39-year-old Zakia, and the 23-year-old Rukhsana, both victims of horrific acid attacks. Zakia, attacked after filing for divorce, strives to find justice with the help of her heroic lawyer Sarkar Abbas. Rukhsana, meanwhile, was forced to reconcile with her husband and her in-laws after they attacked her; she is now carrying her attacker’s child.

Still from “Saving Face”
The film provides an intimate window into the lives of these characters, all of whom have bravely stepped up to tell their stories, determined and unbowed, in the hopes that by raising awareness, they will help in preventing other women from suffering their fate.

DOX’s Özge Calafato talks to Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy following the film’s Oscar win.

Let’s start with how the story came about.  

Daniel:I was listening to the story on British model Katie Piper who was attacked with acid. When I heard she was thanking her surgeon Muhammad Jawad, I thought, “That’s not a very British name”. So I called him up and asked if he was aware of the phenomenon of acid attacks in South Asia and the rest of the world. Once I started filming with Dr. Jawad, it became immediately apparent that I wouldn’t be able to do this without a partner on the ground. That’s why I sought out, to me, in my mind, the country’s best filmmaker, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.

Sharmeen: When Daniel asked me to be co-director of Saving Face I immediately knew I wanted to be on board. Acid violence impacts over a hundred women in rural Pakistan every year but remains largely unreported to the police and in the media. Many of the victims do not even receive adequate treatment. I felt it was my duty as a Pakistani woman, and a journalist, to shed light on the issue.

 How did you choose and convince the two women in the film to participate and tell their stories?
Denver filmmaker Daniel Junge (right) with “Saving Face” codirector Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy

Sharmeen: Acid Survivors Foundation-Pakistan (ASF-Pak) had established a formal apparatus in the region where Saving Face was filmed. Dr. Jawad was also working with ASF-Pak. We spent a lot of time with these survivors during pre-production, learning about their lives, getting to know them personally, and earning their trust.

Daniel: Dr. Jawad saw between 12-20 patients one day. There was one woman, Zakia, who wasn’t planned to be there: She elbowed her way in and was quite vigilant [sic] about getting seen by the doctor. We could tell that Zakia wouldn’t accept anything but justice – that’s why she’d be a great strong central character for the film. It was important to include Rukhsana, as in some ways she represents more the “victim”, like the mainstream of survivors. She’s so disempowered that she doesn’t even know where to begin.

Acid attacks are particularly common in the subcontinent. Do you see any particular cultural and social reasons behind this?

Sharmeen: Acid violence is most common in the Seraiki belt of Pakistan, where Saving Face was filmed. This area is characterized by low literacy levels and high unemployment rates. These conditions contribute to the backward mindsets of the people who have historically perceived women as subordinate to men. Because acid disfigures its victims and is a way of instilling shame, when women spurn the advances of men or behave in a way that seems out of line, they will be brutally and vengefully punished by this method.

Also, there are cases where the women family members will help the man attack his wife. Of course, poor enforcement of law also contributes to the prevalence of these attacks. Once a woman becomes a victim she is often shunned by her own family or locked away, so as to hide the disgraceful act. Culturally, women are dependent upon men for financial support and so even if a woman is attacked by her husband she is usually forced to reconcile with him and remain in his house. Even if her own family looks past the shame and wants to support her, more often than not, they cannot afford the additional burden.

Did you at times feel that you were putting Zakia and Rukhsana in danger when exposing their stories? 

Sharmeen: There is an entire process that the production team must go through before, during and after the production of a film. Ensuring the safety of the subjects remains a priority throughout.

Daniel: In fact, this is the biggest challenge that we are facing in releasing the film in Pakistan. We will only release it once we can guarantee the safety of the subjects.

Saving Face

How are Zakia and Rukhsana doing now? What changes in their perspectives have you observed after the film? 

Sharmeen:The most moving moment for me personally was when Rukhsana decided to name her soon to be born baby after Dr. Jawad as opposed to its father who was also her (Rukhsana’s) attacker. She has now moved out of her husband’s home. ASF-Pak is in the process of finding her safe housing. Zakia is working towards rebuilding her life, now that her face is restored. She is settling down with her son and young daughter, and searching for employment.

 Following the boost from winning an Oscar, how will you continue your fight against acid attacks?

Sharmeen: Over the next few months, Saving Face will spearhead a national awareness campaign in which the film will be screened at colleges, schools and community spaces. Currently our partners are ASF-Pak, Islamic Help and Acid Survivors Trust International. As of now, we have screenings of Saving Face scheduled in the US and UK, and we will have similar events in Pakistan in private settings.

Daniel: Sharmeen has already done two PSAs in Pakistan to raise awareness. We’re building tool kits of materials using the film to be shared with victims, showing them what the available resources are and what they can do. Our focus on survivors includes raising funds for their legal fees, fees for their housing needs and livelihood support such as vocational training. [What] we’re working on is the mapping of the attacks to understand where exactly it’s happening, in order to present to the UN and other bigger bodies.

A more comprehensive law was passed in Bangladesh, coupled with an extensive awareness campaign. The decrease in acid attacks is incredible, as much as 4000%. At the very least I heard that it’s a 20% reduction per year. And that was achieved without an Oscar-winning film!

Daniel and Sharmeen reiterate that no part of Pakistani society condones acid attacks. Seeing the survivors onscreen is as shocking to Pakistanis as it is to anyone else. The good news is that Saving Face has been embraced by policy-makers in Pakistan – who have, in turn, awarded Sharmeen with Pakistan’s highest civilian honor and more legislative measures are on the way.