“Saving Face,” this year’s Academy Award-winning short documentary, will have its broadcast premiere on HBO March 8 at 8:30pm, coinciding with International Women’s Day. The film’s had an unusually straightforward path to its cable TV bow, skipping the festival circuit for the awards one after its qualifying run, and recently playing in theaters as part of the Oscar shorts program.
“Saving Face” explores the harrowing stories of Pakistani women who’ve been maimed by acid attacks, often at the hands of their spouses or family members, focusing on 39-year-old Zakia, whose husband threw acid on her after she asked for a divorce, and 25-year-old Rukhsana, whose husband and in-laws threw acid and gasoline on her and then set her on fire. Over 150 such attacks occur in Pakistan each year, and more are believed to go unreported.
Director Daniel Junge (“They Killed Sister Dorothy”) first learned about acid violence through London-based surgeon, Dr. Mohammad Jawad, who regularly travels to his home country of Pakistan to help women who have been assaulted. Junge brought on Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (“Transgenders: Pakistan’s Open Secret”) to serve as his collaborator, and credits her with bringing the stories of the women to the forefront: “It was her presence that allowed us this intimacy.” I caught up with the co-directors on the eve of their film’s first TV airing.
How widespread is the phenomenon of acid attacks?
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: Acid violence also happens in Cambodia, Thailand, India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan… I’ve just been told that there are several cases in Columbia this year. In Pakistan, the phenomenon is relatively new. If you look at the areas where this is happening, they usually have low levels of literacy and high levels of unemployment. In many of these societies, there’s either revenge, shame or honor involved. You don’t need a license to buy acid, and very rarely can it be traced back to you. And many times, unfortunately, it’s done by family members. Families don’t want to press charges, and that emboldens other people.
When first conceiving of “Saving Face,” did you expect Dr. Jawad would be the focus?
Daniel Junge: Yes. And although he’s still a primary vehicle for the film, the conduit we’re using, it became evident very quickly that the women’s stories would be in the forefront, and that it was most important to make them the central subjects.
Given the nature of the attacks on these women, was it difficult to find subjects who were willing to appear on camera to share their story?
SOC: It helped enormously that I am Paksitani and I understand the culture. I think they felt emboldened that they could share their stories with someone who understood their language and the sense around why this had happened to them. Through the course of filming, they learned to trust us. The Acid Survivors Foundation in Islamabad was very helpful in getting to the personal lives of some of these women as well. But it’s the women who were eager to share their stories at the end of the day.
What are your hopes in using “Saving Face” to draw attention to this issue?
SOC: If you want a global voice for an issue, there’s nothing better than winning an Oscar. We actually feel that we have a chance as filmmakers to effect some sort of change on the ground. There’s legislation that’s been passed, there’s momentum now, people are looking at this issue across the world. We have an international organization we’re partnering with — Acid Survivors Trust International, out of London — and we plan to do a number of fundraisers with the film as well as an outreach program in Pakistan, targeting the communities in which this happens.
DJ: We’re just starting to get an inkling that the film can have an affect not only in Pakistan but globally. I’ve done a lot of social justice films and this is the most focused outreach and the most momentum we’ve ever had. Firstly, It’s a very specific issue, the things that can be done are tangible, and it’s possible that we can eradicate this — it’s not as overwhelming as something like climate change. Secondly, we now have this incredible piece of hardware that helps broadcast the message.
How do you see the issue of acid attacks as emblematic of the problems being faced by women in the country? Part of their devastation is based on how few options the victims already have in terms of places to live and freedom to leave.
DJ: Of course these are issues of empowering women where they’re disempowered, and I feel it’s important to say that the fact that it’s a Muslim woman who directed this film — that in and of itself is a great sign.
SOC: It was very serendipitous for the acid violence bill to have pass while we were making the film. You see educated Pakistani women helping the uneducated women — we have a very strong lawyer, strong Parlimentarians, the foundation. But this is one small step in a larger issue of violence against women. In the last year, three landmark bills have passed in Pakistan to safeguard women’s rights and there are people within the government and civil society who strongly believe that we need to move forward and to protect women. Now, it’s one thing to have laws passed and another to have them implemented, and we’re hoping there will be more pressure to have them implemented now. I just got word this morning that three people who’ve been arrested for throwing acid have been charged under the new law.
DJ: And there are amendments to the law that ASF would like to see passed, and hopefully the film with help with that as well.
Sharmeen, as the first Pakistani to win an Oscar, do you feel there’s added pressure in being representative of your country?
SOC: There’s a little bit of pressure. We had many, many people in Pakistan praying for us to win this Oscar — it might have given us a slight edge. [laughs] It’s really good for Pakistan to feel good about itself and its women. For a woman to get such a global space to speak out to millions of people and represent the modern, secular version of Pakistan that I grew up and live in and that I’d like to see implemented in the rest of the country, that was phenomenal. And because there’s such bleak news that comes out of Pakistan, many have really rallied behind this Oscar win, and feel this is someone others should also aspire to do. There are thousands of stories in Pakistan, and I hope this will empower young filmmakers.
While you’ve had screenings of the film, the broadcast premiere will be the first large audience seeing it. Any expectations as you head towards it?
DJ: There’s been so much talk with the new Academy rules about a theatrical audience. All of my films have played really nicely in festivals and I don’t discount the importance of that audience, but the fact that “Saving Face” will be airing on HBO’s premiere channel in primetime, that millions of people will see it — that can’t be discounted. Documentary is still primarily a television medium and we’re really proud that HBO supported the film from the start and is putting it out to the world. Festival accolades are fantastic, but for a film like ours–
SOC: –at the end of the day, you need people to watch it. And you can’t get greater numbers than on television.
“Saving Face” airs Thursday, March 8th at 8:30pm on HBO.