Film On Pakistani Acid Attack Victims And Their 'Savior' Competes For Oscar

A film nominated for a best documentary Oscar highlights the crime of acid attacks against women in Pakistan and the London-based doctor who is making a difference in their lives.

WASHINGTON -- The documentary film "Saving Face," which is up for Best Short Documentary at this weekend's Academy Awards, pulls the curtain back on an act that's all too common but rarely spoken of in Pakistan: men who throw acid in women's faces -- usually wives or girlfriends -- in a fit of rage.

It's a horrific crime but also a largely unknown one, since the victims are often too ashamed by their disfigurement to publicly report it or reluctant to file charges against a family member. Those men who are found guilty frequently get off with mild punishment.

Pakistani director Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, who made "Saving Face" with American director Daniel Junge, says she hopes the film will help change public attitudes toward the victims as well as the perpetrators. But it's not easy viewing. Early audiences who screened "Saving Face" found some parts difficult to watch, Chinoy says from Los Angeles, where she is to attend the February 26 Oscars ceremony.

"People have of course been uncomfortable watching some of the footage, because you're looking at horribly maimed women. I mean, you're looking at women whose faces are partially melted off," Chinoy says. "But most people have come out of the theaters saying that they were hopeful that work is being done to rehabilitate these women and to ensure that no other women in Pakistan have to endure that."

According to The Acid Survivors Foundation, around 150 women are viciously attacked each year by men who easily obtain acid used in the cotton industry. The real number is likely much higher, advocates say.

The film focuses on Pakistani-born Mohammad Jawad, a successful plastic surgeon in London who has become a savior to women disfigured by these attacks. Despite the fact that he grew up there and has continued to visit on a regular basis, Jawad says he only learned four years ago that such a thing was happening to Pakistani women.

"I did not know," he says by phone from Los Angeles, where he will attend the awards ceremony with Chinoy. "I was not aware of acid attacks at all, and I had been going there my whole life. It never came up in conversation."

WATCH: The official trailer from "Saving Face":

"When I learned more about it, I said this is not something which you can be hiding. This has to be highlighted in some form," Chinoy says. "It has to be owned, as well, by us as a society. And if you have some skills, go back and do something about it, because your locals have disappointed these people, your state failed to provide protection to these women and give them any justice. And you see these things happening -- they are all young women, all terrible stories. I just felt like I needed to do something."

What he did was start working with charity groups who help acid attack victims, like Islamic Help. Now he leaves his London private plastic surgery clinic, Nip N Tuck, every three months and flies to Pakistan, where he holds free clinics to try and repair the disfiguring damage the women have suffered.

Zakia, whom the film follows, is one such woman. A film reviewer in "The Guardian" newspaper described the young mother's face looking "as if half of it has been rubbed out. What's left is one eye, half a nose and a mouth that can no longer smile."

"Zakia wanted to get a divorce from her husband who was an...alcoholic. And when she asked him for a divorce, he said that he wouldn't. So she went to court instead," Chinoy says. "And when [he found out], he told her he would teach her a lesson. So one day when she was coming out of the courtroom, he threw acid on her face and said, 'Now go ahead and divorce me.' He wanted her to spend the rest of her life within the four walls of her home. And he wanted her to regret the decision to divorce him."

Jawad says his ability to talk to women like Zakia in their own language, and his understanding of Pakistan's culture, helps him comfort them when they arrive at his clinic. His skill as a surgeon helps him repair their faces, to a point. When he finishes, they are not happy, he says, only "happier."

"This is a long healing process, I am just being a small catalyst to just sort of restore some damaged part of their body, believe me," Jawad says. "But the damage is very deep and, I think, quite substantial. There's spiritual and psychological repair. We haven't even touched half of it. But what's amazing about all these women, despite all of this, and I can speak with complete confidence: they are the bravest women I've come across in my bloody life, I swear to God."

Because of efforts by advocates for acid attack victims, Pakistan now has a law that punishes the crime with a prison sentence of 14 years. Chinoy says enforcement is still sporadic.

But that is changing, she adds. "While this story is a story of despair, it shows that women who are educated are helping these uneducated women. Lawyers are fighting their cases and female parliamentarians are hearing their testimony and drafting bills," she says. "So there is a lot of work being done to make sure this does not continue in Pakistan."

Copyright (c) RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.


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