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.
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.
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.
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