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Documentaries make social change happen

March 03, 2012

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PESHAWAR, March 3: Ten years back when Samar Minallah, a documentary filmmaker from Peshawar, was filming sawara she did not know the profound impact it will generate, helping to change the discourse of many lives.

The documentary, highlighting the social problem of giving girls in exchange for ending old disputes, resulted into an amendment to Pakistan Penal Code.

As per PPC-310-A, that was made part of the law in 2004, those who give or take a girl in compensation are liable to receive 3 to 10 years imprisonment, if proven guilty.

“Documentary is a strong medium, particularly, if it is in a vernacular language and disseminated widely,” Ms Minallah said, adding “Sawara was a big success because social organisations showed it in villages, cities and press clubs, generating discussion to end the age old custom.”

Since 2006 some 59 girls, according to her, have been saved from being given away in compensation by filing public interest litigation cases in courts, seeking justice under the 2004 amendment to the PPC.

“Among them three sisters belong to Mianwali and today one of them is a medical college student after the law took its effect, stopping their being given into dispute settlement,” said Ms Minallah, who has won a Unesco-sponsored regional documentary making competition and was declared one of the ‘Young Leaders of Asia’ by Asia Society New York, a non-profit educational organisations, in 2007.

Shabeena Ayaz, Peshawar-based regional head of Aurat Foundation, said documentaries covering social ills had helped brought local and international recognition, bringing in change.

A yet another documentary, Oscar-winning ‘Saving Face’, co-directed by Pakistan’s Shermeen Obaid Chinoy and USA’s Daniel Junge, has raised the plight of acid attack victims and the country’s progress in terms of making stricter laws to punish the perpetrators and post-attack help extended to the victims by social work organisations and an individual philanthropist.

‘Saving Face,’ said Ms Minallah, could result into a social change, creating awareness of the heinousness of the crime.

“It will inspire young documentary filmmakers to learn and produce good documentaries,” she said. She added that the award-winning documentary should be screened in colleges and on TV channels to disseminate its message.

Ms Chinoy also endeavors to bring forth the plight of the acid victims and the courage with which they are fighting for their survival.

“We want audiences to leave cinemas feeling uplifted and hopeful whilst being more aware of acid violence and its occurrence in Pakistan,” Ms Chinoy said in her emailed reply to questions by Dawn, a few days before ‘Saving Face’ was awarded this year’s Oscar for the Best Documentary, Short Subject.

“It is a story about the way communities deal with violence and prejudice, and ways in which people come together to achieve incredible things in unimaginable circumstances,” she said.

‘Saving Face,’ she added, was equally a story that intended to bring acid violence into mainstream public discourse as it was about highlighting the spirit of the survivors and the way in which Pakistani citizens come to the aid of their countrymen.

Identical views were expressed by Dr Mohammad Jawad, a Pakistani origin British surgeon, whose work has been chronicled in ‘Saving Face’.

“I thought if we could highlight this issue effectively it will receive international recognition and a platform from where we can tell others that ‘look, we have a problem and we are also looking for solutions and we can have solutions’,” said Dr Jawad over phone before Feb 26, 2012.

Apart from finding solutions to its social problems, the country needs to make a major leap forward to ensure effective implementation of the existing laws, civil society members say.

“There is an urgent need to publicise the laws about preventing sawara and acid attacks to help vulnerable communities know their rights and the remedies available to them,” Ms Ayaz said.

Strict implementation of the laws, she added, were needed and a support system should be put in place to let people know where they could get help.

Dr Jawad also felt the need for improving health provision facilities and burn units. More money should be spent on giving training to health professionals so that they could properly take care of the acid attack victims, he added.

“The acid attack survivors tend to be very special, they have been failed miserable at every front,” said Dr Jawad, adding “on the one hand society shunned them off, on the other, our health facilities are inapt.”

Adding insult to injury, the survivors did not get justice, said the surgeon.

He, however, said the instances of acid attacks had, apparently, neither decreased nor increased going by his experience of providing free treatment to acid attack survivors in Pakistan since 2008.

Ms Minallah said projection of sawara-related issues by media had compelled police in Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa alike to register cases against those giving their girls in dispute settlements.

“We should not live with an illusion that we can solve our problems (by highlighting them in documentaries), but they do make a lot of difference bringing positive changes to people’s lives,” she said.