ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani women who survive revenge-based acid attacks are, in the words of one, the “living dead.” But their stories take on new life in the Oscar-winning documentary “Saving Face,” which follows two victims with disfiguring acid injuries as they attempt to reclaim their dignity and identities.
“This is a story of hope because it shows the Pakistan problem, but it shows how the problem is being solved,” the film’s Karachi-based co-director, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, said in an interview before her film won Hollywood’s top honor. The hero of the 40-minute short-form documentary — which has earned the first -ever Academy Award nomination for a Pakistani director — is a London plastic surgeon named Mohammad Jawad, who returns to his homeland to donate his services to repair the women’s wounds.
The film says more than 100 acid attacks are reported every year in Pakistan but many more go unreported. The attacks are often done in violent retaliation by a rebuffed suitor or a would-be marriage partner. Acid is readily obtained in Pakistan because it is a product widely used in the nation’s dominant textile industry.
The Acid Survivors Foundation in Islamabad helps these victims of domestic violence to regain some sense of normalcy. Its work is also highlighted in the documentary, which begins airing on the HBO network on March 8.
When 39-year-old Zakia attempted to divorce her husband, he retaliated by dousing her with the corrosive substance; 25-year-old Rukhsana was burned with acid and set on fire by her husband and his family. The film chronicles their struggles as they navigate medical and legal mazes and attempt to rebuild their lives. (Zakia’s husband was convicted of assault and sentenced to two life sentences, under a new more stringent law enacted to stem acid assaults.)
“Saving Face” is co-directed by Daniel Junge, an American who had heard about Jawad and his work with British acid burn victim Katie Piper, whose case was well covered. “I called him out of the blue and said, ‘Are you aware of the prevalence of acid attacks in the Muslim world?’ ” Junge recalled.
The surgeon, though born and schooled in Pakistan, did not realize the frequency of the horrific crime. “If we want to be a civilized nation, this has to be condemned,” Jawad said. “If it’s not condemned, it will be encouraged.”
Yet in some pockets of Pakistani society, the victims of acid attacks gain no sympathy. “There is a taboo with having acid thrown on a woman. A lot of people think she must have been responsible for it,” Obaid-Chinoy said. “So initially the women were reluctant and we had to work through that, but it didn’t take a lot of convincing. They realized it was in their interest to share their stories. It will educate people about acid violence.”
Another goal of the film: “We wanted men to know they think it is manly to throw acid, but in fact it was the most unmanly thing to do.”
In Rukhsana’s case, the tragedy of disfigurement was compounded by the fact that she had no choice but to continue to live with her attacker, her husband — she became pregnant after the attack.
“I have never come across a more tragic life story in my life than what I came across in those few years,” Jawad said. “The sheer helplessness of these poor women — they have to put up with this and the complete failure of society.”
But after multiple reconstructive surgeries, Zakia no longer has to cover her face, he said. And the doctor considers himself changed as well: “I felt that being a Pakistani that I’m trying to save my own face,” he said. “I think we need to wake up to reality that this happens and we have been doing nothing about it.”