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Oscar nomination

'Pakistanis can help Pakistanis'


STRAIGHT SHOOTERS: Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy with co-director Daniel Junge

Saving Face, a documentary featuring victims of acid violence in Pakistan and the efforts of a British-Pakistani plastic surgeon Dr M Ali Jawad to conduct free plastic surgery for these women, has been nominated for an Oscar. The film is a collaborative effort between the American film-maker Daniel Junge, whose idea it was to document Jawad's contribution and who has an Oscar nomination for an earlier film, and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, a 1978-born Pakistani film-maker who has won an Emmy award for her documentary Children of the Taliban/Pakistan's Taliban Generation, an in-depth investigation of the Taliban's methods of brainwashing and training young Pakistani northerners for combat and suicide attacks.

Acid violence, an extreme form of physical abuse aimed mainly at women, is underreported in Pakistan. Official figures state that a hundred cases of acid violence are filed every year, though it is estimated that the actual figure is far greater. An acid attack literally means throwing acid on a person's face, which burns and melts the flesh, sometimes the bone as well, leading to disfigurement, loss of sight and traumatic physical and emotional consequences. This form of violence takes place in many parts of the world, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Cambodia. Recent attacks in more developed nations include a mass attack on shoppers in Hong Kong, and the attack on British model Katie Piper in the UK.

The frequency of attacks in Pakistan can be linked to illiteracy, poverty, gender discrimination and inequalities that make it difficult for women to know their rights and to access the judicial system. Reasons of attacks can vary from a turneddown marriage proposal, suspected sexual advances of wives towards other men or simply irrational jealousy. The attackers are usually men, but there are also cases when older women have helped to disfigure their daughters-in-law. The Seraiki belt of southern Punjab is where most of the attacks take place. This is an area of extreme poverty and high levels of illiteracy. Acid is also easily available as it is used to process cotton, which is the major crop here.

Saving Face was filmed in Pakistan, mainly in the Seraiki belt, Pindi, Islamabad and Karachi. The film features Zakia, a 39-year-old woman who had acid thrown on her by her husband after filing for divorce, and Rukhsana, a 23-year-old woman who was attacked by her husband and in-laws and forced to reconcile with them.

British-Pakistani plastic surgeon Dr Jawad has long worked with the victims of such attacks. With his vast knowledge and experience in burns reconstruction, Mohammad Jawad has worked for Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI) and Islamic Help to support the victims of attacks. He also contributes to the Smiles Better campaign, a rehabilitation project for acid-attack survivors, by providing life-changing reconstructive surgery. He says that the most challenging aspect of working with the victims is managing their expectations. Victims can never look just as they did even after surgery. The directors of the film are also working on an outreach programme to educate the victims and connect them to people who can provide them vocational training. Excerpts from an interview with Chinoy:

Tell us about Sharmeen Obaid Films and the beginnings of 'Saving Face'.

SOC Films has been a long time coming but I finally opened the production house in Karachi last year. It will allow me to expand my work and focus on some local projects. My co-director, Daniel Junge, asked me to join his team when the project was in its initial stages. I had just had a baby and lost my father all in the span of a few months and I desperately wanted to throw myself into a project that I knew would make a difference. So Daniel who had heard of my work reached out to me at the right time. Daniel thought it would be fascinating to see how Dr Jawad's revolutionary plastic surgery skills could be used in Pakistan. We wanted to show how Pakistanis help other Pakistanis, and our story shows the audience how a country's people can help overcome problems.

Dr Jawad came into the limelight when BBC channel 4 aired a documentary about his work with victim and model Katie Piper. Please shed light on his involvement with Saving Face.

Dr Jawad is Saving Face. The documentary would not be possible without his incredible work. He is a great example of an educated and successful Pakistani coming home to give back to his community. He is an incredible plastic surgeon who worked for celebrities but also gave hope and improved the lives of the women who were the victims of acid violence.

Daniel Junge is known as a documentary filmmaker who has an extraordinary ability to elicit emotion and create empathy with his audience. What was it like to direct with him?

Daniel and I felt we were a good match because we both shared a passion for storytelling. Working with him was a wonderful experience. We brought different sensibilities to the table and ended up making a film that we both regard as the best documentary we have produced so far in our careers.

How do you feel about being the first ever Oscar nominee from Pakistan?

These recognitions reinforce the fact that you can come from anywhere but if you work hard and strive for excellence your work will be appreciated at the highest levels. I am humbled and honored that my work has received such acclaim.

Do you feel your profile as a young Pakistani woman brings your work greater attention? Does the profile sometimes overshadow the work itself?

My profile is my work. I am a journalist and documentary maker and that is how I see myself first and foremost. I also help manage The Citizens Archive of Pakistan, so I wear many hats. I don't think my profile overshadows my work.

Critics of your work describe your films, and specifically 'Saving Face', as "fodder for anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam media".

We do journalism not public relations and so our job is to convey the truth, promote critical discourse and prevent ostrich mentality. We try to encourage people to come together to problem solve as a community. When Saving Face is released viewers will realise it is a story of resilience highlighting the perseverance of the lawyers who fought the cases, the parliamentarians who passed the bill, and the doctors who came to help. It is a microcosmic example of the way Pakistanis can help themselves, and as the strongest narrative, that is what is most relevant. Our solutions lie within our own borders and our own people.

How do you balance the demands of your work and being a young mother? Any tips for women who must work and parent simultaneously?

I attribute my success to my family, especially my husband and to the people I have worked with, they have propelled me to push harder and reach new heights. Juggling work and family is challenging but not impossible. The secret to parenting and working hard is in having fantastic family who babysit whenever you need them to!

For details of 'Saving Face', go to www. sharmeenobaidfilms. com

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