When Louis C.K. flawlessly introduced the Best Documentary, Short Subject category at the Oscars, he said it’s his favorite because “this is the one Academy Award that has the opportunity to change a life.” He was talking about the filmmakers — “these people will not be rich as long as they live. All they do is tell stories that are important” — but in the case of the winner this year, it has the potential to change a great many lives. “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness,” premiering on HBO on March 7, tells the story of Saba, an attempted honor killing victim in Pakistan who survived.
There are many remarkable things about this: that the young woman is still alive, primarily. That she agreed to be the focus of this short film, which almost certainly put her in a kind of local spotlight that further endangered her safety. And that the Pakistani prime minister has vowed to change honor killing laws in the wake of seeing the film, as second-time Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy noted at the end of her speech (a piece of information the Academy classily began drowning out with the “wrap it up” music).
Honor killing is a tradition — often falsely linked with the tenets of Islam, though it takes place in other cultures and religions as well — in which usually-male relatives of a woman will murder her for a perceived transgression against the reputation of the family (or as a window-dressing reason used to cover up a more baldly financial or real estate-related dispute between families).
Obaid-Chinoy notes at the start of her film that the number of honor killing victims in Pakistan alone is more than 1,000 a year. The stories behind that statistic are horrifying on a level that is barely believable (but, then again, right here in the U.S. the Supreme Court is today considering a case about whether women should be allowed to make decisions about their own bodies. Misogyny: it’s everywhere).
“A Girl in the River” brings the shocking Pakistan statistic to life with the tale of Saba, who for the crime of eloping was shot by her father and uncle, stuffed into a bag and thrown into a river to die. Obaid-Chinoy begins with graphic photographic evidence from that night, when Saba climbed out of the water, made her way to a gas station and found help getting to a hospital. Although her father had meant to shoot her in the head, she turned at the last second, so the bullet merely ripped through the side of her face, as we see in the photos and in the footage of doctors doing work on the scar. “I have never heard of a girl who has been thrown in the river and lived to tell the tale,” says Saba, who in a just world would be destined for bigger things than spending the rest of her life in fear of her family.
This is just one of the (deliberately) infuriating aspects of Obaid-Chinoy’s film, in which this young woman is stuck in a culture where her wish for her attackers to spend the rest of their lives in jail — which she expressly says is what she wants — isn’t supported by anyone, with the exception of her husband, who is essentially powerless due to family hierarchy, and her lawyer, who is eventually replaced with one more sympathetic to the men.
Obaid-Chinoy gets remarkable access to a wide range of the people perpetrating honor killing culture. Is this in spite of her being a woman? Or is it simply that, by virtue of being female, she’s not taken seriously? In any case, her interview with Saba’s father and uncle, in their jail cell, is deeply chilling: Both are unrepentant, professing pride in their actions. When he talks about telling Saba’s mother what he did, her father says, “She cried. What else could she do? I am her husband. She is just my wife.” Saba’s mother, meanwhile, supports her husband’s actions, saying that her other daughters would be punished if they strayed as Saba had (though she stops short of endorsing murder, saying they would be beaten).
The director also does a tremendous job of honing in on the terrible Catch-22 that befalls the few women who, like Saba, survive an honor killing attempt: They are pressured by family and society to formally forgive their attackers, who sign a dubious “compromise” agreeing not to try to kill her again (though, in Saba’s case, her relatives initially swore on the Koran that they would not harm her, right before shooting her). If the women refuse and press charges, the men will likely be sent to jail for a handful of years and emerge more bent on revenge than they were in the first place. As Saba’s (first) lawyer says, “If they are sentenced to five years and then come out and try to kill her again, who is going to protect her?” There is no good solution here. Meanwhile, the vast majority of forgiveness agreements don’t involve the woman in question — because she is dead (in an interview with NPR, the director puts that figure at 99 percent). Instead, her relatives forgive the attacker or attackers, which frees them from further prosecution.
It is very, very tempting to watch “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness” and throw your hands up in anger and frustration. But the fact of its being given the Oscar, and aired on HBO, means Saba’s story will be seen by countless more people than would have known about it — or honor killings in general — otherwise. As she says in the film, “The world needs to see this.” Thanks to the brave work of Obaid-Chinoy, it will.