Saving Face Movie Review – Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2014


saving face

February 9th, 2014.  Acid (Noun)- Definition: A chemical substance that neutralizes alkalis, dissolves some metals, and turns litmus red; typically, a corrosive or sour-tasting liquid of this kind. Uses of this industrial strength liquid vary widely.

In Islamabad Pakistan, acid has now become the weapon of choice for settling domestic grievances. The perpetrators are almost always male and the victims are always female. Attacks have one objective, to disfigure the face (a women’s currency) and stigmatise her for life.  Saving Face dissects the cycle of violence and gives a voice to the thousands of voiceless women and girls, some as young as 13, whose only crime was seeking dignity.

In Pakistan’s government hospital, a free clinic has been set up for victims of acid attacks.  With well over 100 attacks reported every year and many more going unreported, this epidemic of abuse shows no signs of abating. To put things in context, the cycle of domestic abuse towards all women is ubiquitous, transcending both culture and demographics around the world. The addition of undiluted acid is making what’s happening in Pakistan an even greater call to action.  Refusing a teacher’s advances, rejecting a proposal or even daring to leave an abusive marriage has somehow made acid attacks an acceptable recourse to a problem where men are the ultimate power brokers in society.  Dr. Mohammad Jawad, a leading plastic surgeon in London with a successful practice and star clients can no longer ignore the ravages of injustice that is literally defacing his beloved country.  For Dr. Jawad, his homecoming is one part horror and one part saviour as he tries to right the wrongs by providing the reconstructive surgery these women so desperately need.

Directors, Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy don’t play it safe with the subject matter nor should they.  Victimization, humiliation and mutilation are the core themes of Saving Face as they force viewers to confront these atrocities through microscopic close ups and haunting tales of abuse.   Shrouded in secrecy, the twisted face of Zakia, a 39 year old mother echoes more like the nightmarish Freddy Kruger than Bollywood’s superstar, Aishwarya Rai, all because she wanted a divorce from her drug addicted, alcoholic husband, Pervez.  For Rukhsana, a 23 year old mother, her abuse became a hideous family affair.  With her husband Yasir throwing acid on her face, Rukhsana’s sister-in-law doused her with gasoline while her mother-in-law lite her on fire. And after all this, she must endure the humiliation of moving back in and making amends with her in-laws due to health concerns of her child.

To better understand the roots of this abuse and the rampant God-complex that has consumed Pakistani men, Saving Face unearths the cultural and socio-economic under-pinings at its epicentre in Central Pakistan.  As one of the world’s major cotton producing regions, the highest quality of undiluted acid is easily accessible in the production of cotton.  Where a licence is required to own a gun, there is no such requirement for acid. When you combine this with rampant poverty, illiteracy and an authoritarian male dominated culture with few checks and balances, you now have all the ingredients for an acid attack. Revealing Q&A’s confront flippant husbands rife with disgust as they effortlessly manufacture convoluted stories of secret affairs, family conspiracies, self-immolation, high blood pressure, mental illness and mysterious perpetrators as the real culprits. Various victim blaming scenarios become the standard go to defense.

Saving Face successfully weaves a compelling narrative between a medical drama and legal advocacy as we flip between pre-op and post -op cases with Dr. Jawad and Dr. Tariq, all the while following Zakia’s advocate Sarkar Abbass as she breaks new ground by testing recent legislation that punishes perpetrators of acid attacks.  By shining much needed light on organizations like the Acid Survivor’s Foundation (“ASF”) in Islamabad, this documentary helps mend a social safety net that that is woefully lacking for victims.

Verdict:  4 out of 5 – Exposing the inequity and injustice of this life altering act on so many fronts is where Saving Face shines the brightest. This 2012 Academy Award Winning Documentary (Short Subject) deserves all the accolades it has garnered and more. When your face is your currency, Pakistan women must protect it at all cost knowing that the current judicial system is toothless to defend.  Junge and Obaid-Chinoy cleverly segues between flawless advertising and movie billboards on the street, offering up what should be the ideal for Pakistan women in contrast to the stark realities they are confronted with daily.  Saving Face serves as a powerful indictment on the state of Pakistani women today.  Pakistan may continue to ignore the issue but this deep rooted problem is not going away.

Saving Face exposes the lengths men will go to to maintain control.

Genre: Documentary, Drama
Country: Pakistan, USA
Language: Urdu, (English subtitles)
Award: 2012 Academy Award Winning Documentary (Short Subject)
Director: Daniel Junge, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
Producer(s): Davis Coombe, Daniel Junge, Alison Greenberg, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Sabiha Sumar
Canadian Release Date: 2013
Runtime: 52 minutes
Dr. Mohammad Jawad, Zakia, Pervez, Sumbal, Taj, Rukhsana, Yasir, Bilquis Siddique, Dr. Tariq, Sarkar Abbass

“I know I won’t ever again be as God made me.”

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