PAKISTAN has hardly ever figured in the star-studded world of the Oscars, but Karachi-based documentary-maker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy appears to have reversed this trend by putting it on the award-winning list. On Sunday, Saving Face, co-directed by Ms Obaid-Chinoy and Daniel Junge, won the Best Documentary (Short Subject) at the 84th Academy Awards in Hollywood. Seeing Pakistan being talked about in such a positive context in the international press makes for a welcome change, prone as the country is to being discussed for myriad errors of omission and commission. Ms Obaid-Chinoy’s success should inspire other Pakistanis, too, for the country has no dearth of talent. It should also remind the state and society of their responsibilities in terms of encouraging and promoting people who choose to work in fields that are often under-funded or overlooked altogether in the country. While the television business has taken the country by storm, less attention has been paid to related areas of endeavour such as documentary-making or the performing arts. The dividends to be gained from plugging this gap are illustrated by Ms Obaid-Chinoy’s triumph in the Oscars as well as in the Emmy awards in 2010.
Nevertheless, the subject of Saving Face leads to the sobering realisation that much remains amiss inside Pakistan. The film follows British plastic surgeon Dr Mohammed Jawad returning to the country of his origin to perform reconstructive surgery and literally save the faces of acid attack victims. It also follows one such victim in her fight to have her persecutors brought to book.
Acid violence is a particularly despicable form of assault, and statistically most victims tend to be women. It has a catastrophic effect on the entire family which must bear the cost of complex medical interventions. While formerly such violence was considered by the law as assault, Pakistan now has legislation specifically criminalising acid attacks. The Criminal Law Amendment Bill 2011, originally presented as the Acid Control and Acid Crime Bill 2010, was signed into law by President Asif Ali Zardari towards the end of last year. This was a welcome step, but controlling this crime requires more than laws. It has been suggested that stringent restrictions be imposed on the sale and purchase of acid, and certainly the country needs to see more prosecutions in cases of acid attack. Yet fully controlling such violence will mean changing a vengeful and patriarchal societal mindset in which crimes against women are considered justified when the male notion of ‘honour’ is challenged. In this context, Ms Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary brings to the fore the trauma of disfigured women and indicates where the actual remedy may lie.