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'Saving Face' puts focus on plight of Pakistani women

The Oscar-winning documentary about increasing acid attacks on Pakistani women airs on HBO Thursday.

March 08, 2012|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • A scene from the documentary "Saving Face."
A scene from the documentary "Saving Face." (Asad Faruqi / HBO )

With all the attention on celebrity and glamour at the Academy Awards, it's rare that the award for short documentary film gets much notice. But that's what happened this year when director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy received the Oscar for documentary short with co-director Daniel Junge for "Saving Face," which looks at the more than 150 acid attacks upon Pakistani women each year.

In an impassioned speech, Obaid-Chinoy, a Muslim and Pakistani, dedicated the award to "all the women in Pakistan who are working for change. Don't give up on your dreams."

Now a larger audience can see the moving, often shocking 40-minute film, which airs Thursday at 8:30 p.m. on HBO. "Saving Face" follows two women, Zakia and Rukhsana, who have been brutally attacked with acid by their husbands, and the Pakistani-born British plastic surgeon, Dr. Mohammad Jawad, who returns to his homeland to perform surgery on these women. These victims often have to endure 20 surgeries.

Obaid-Chinoy, who also will be receiving a civilian award from Pakistan's prime minister this month for the film, said the acid phenomenon has been growing in her country for the past decade, especially in parts of the country with high levels of unemployment and low levels of literacy.

"Most times, men who throw acid are members of one's own family, they don't get prosecuted," Obaid-Chinoy said. "They don't get sent to jail and it emboldens other people. If you look at any Third World country where there is abject poverty, you find there is violence against women. They are the first line of easy defense you can knock over."

In the past year, though, the Pakistani government has enacted three major laws in support of women. "There is this mood in the air in Pakistan that the government recognizes the fact that women need to be protected," Obaid-Chinoy said.

During production last year, one such law was passed that there would be a minimum mandatory prison term of 14 years to life for acid attacks.

Since that law passed, Obaid-Chinoy said that more women are coming forward and old cases are being reopened. "It is a small step that has been taken in the right direction, but it is going to take along time for that law to be implemented on the ground in its full extent."

"Saving Face' was just one of the many Oscar-winning films that either dealt with international subjects or were directed by foreign filmmakers.

"We were both and amazed and excited with the Academy Awards," Obaid-Chinoy said. "There is such great cinema around the world and great filmmakers. It is tribute to the academy that it has awarded so many different kinds of filmmakers this year. It is not just an American event with American filmmakers, but people with talent, stories, scripts and direction from around the world."

After the documentary airs on HBO and England's Channel 4, said Junge, "we fully intend to show it in Pakistan. We are going to do a global distribution, which includes Pakistan, but we don't want to do that until we ensure the safety of the people in the film. I think we have an incredible ability to impact this specific problem now with this accolade, but just having a Muslim woman on stage receiving an Oscar for directing a film, I hope that can help implement change."

susan.king@latimes.com

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