It's a story that's been told again and again in almost all South Asian countries. Be it India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, it's not uncommon for women in this part of the world to be viciously targeted; inflicted with the most gruesome torture in the form of acid attacks.
Although we have all read about such incidents and the plight of victims has been reported widely, it is the Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, who has taken their stories of sadness, survival and succour to international audiences. In the process, she and her co-director, American documentarian Daniel Junge, have won this year's biggest film award – the Oscar for the Best Short Documentary Film.
The protagonists of 'Saving Face', a 40-minute documentary, are the acid attack victims from her home country, Pakistan, and the film not only highlights the victims' lives after the attacks but also shows resilient survivors and their fight for justice. Through the work of acclaimed British Pakistani plastic surgeon, Dr Mohammad Jawad, who travels to Pakistan to perform reconstructive surgery on survivors, audiences worldwide get to see their side of the story.
"The idea behind 'Saving Face' was conceived by my co-director, Daniel Junge. He had heard of Dr Jawad, featured in 'Saving Face', on the radio and contacted him with regard to his work in Pakistan. Then Daniel got in touch with me and the subject matter appealed to me immediately. Throughout my career, I have focused on topics that are not addressed by the mainstream media in order to raise awareness and promote critical dialogues around such issues, and I made 'Saving Face' with similar intentions," explains Chinoy.
Just like the support group, Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women (CSAAAW) in India, Pakistan's Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF) has been working painstakingly with the acid victims, offering them medical assistance as well as opportunities for rehabilitation.
After meeting Dr Jawad and interacting with him, the director duo, which was not very familiar with the Saraiki region, got in touch with the ASF. Recalls Chinoy, "My team and I spent months with the acid attack survivors profiled in our film, and had the privilege of getting to know them and their circumstances very well. During this time we were able to make our subjects comfortable with being on camera, and they were happy to guide us through their lives. Zakia and Rukhsana, the main characters in the narrative, were very forthcoming with their stories and were eager to make their experiences available to a larger audience."
In Pakistan, it has been observed that most acid attacks occur in the Saraiki region of Punjab province. This economically backward region – where unemployment is high and illiteracy is widespread – witnesses several barbaric acts by men, especially frustrated husbands, and the victims are usually hapless, uneducated, economically-dependent women.
Why are acid attacks common in these regions? Mainly because acid is widely available because it is used as a cleaning agent in cotton production. Moreover, as a cleaning agent, it is commonly found in most homes, too. So it becomes an easy weapon, one that can cause permanent and mammoth damage to victims.
While making 'Saving Face', Chinoy also found that most accounts of acid violence were linked to the concept of shame: some perpetrators use it as a way to punish their wives whilst others throw acid on women who refuse their proposals of marriage. "Although the reasons vary, they all boil down to an extreme form of punishment that is intended to permanently dishonour and humiliate the victim," she observes.
Naturally, most women hesitate to admit the reasons for their plight and also identify the perpetrator. Chinoy reveals, "In terms of identifying the perpetrator, the responses tended to vary. Some women are unable to leave their husbands as they depend on them financially; others make their cases public. It depends on their circumstances and the options available to them."
Chinoy is perhaps the best person to have shown the world the acid attack story. No stranger to painful subjects or heart wrenching tales, this 30-plus director is a master of the documentary medium. She has several films to her credit, including 'Women of the Holy Kingdom', 'Afghanistan Unveiled/Lifting the Veil' and 'Transgender: Pakistan's Open Secret', which have gone on to win many awards like the Emmy, Alfred I Dupont and the Association for International Broadcasting Awards. In fact, she is the first non-American to be awarded the Livingston Award for best international reporting.
Talking about her other works, especially those shot in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, Chinoy says, "Each film comes with its own set of challenges. 'Women of the HolyKingdom' was difficult because women are severely restricted in Saudi Arabia and are not able to move through the country freely. We were stopped by the moral police multiple times, had our tapes confiscated and were often monitored by Saudi intelligence."
Filming in conflict zones had its own tests. "Shooting for 'Iraq: The Lost Generation', I was struck by how Pakistan and Iraq shared many commonalities, and that we ran the risk of one day confronting similar realities," she says, adding, "But as a documentary filmmaker, it is imperative that one maintains objectivity and not become emotionally involved with the subject. I admit this difficult, but over the years I have become better equipped to cover difficult subject matters."
A mother of a baby girl, and married to an investment banker, Chinoy knows that documentary films still do not have the mass appeal that popular cinema enjoys. "Unfortunately, there is no real history of documentary filmmaking in South Asia, and so television channels are less likely to invest in this medium. However, I do see a shift in Pakistan, with the rise of non-fiction story-telling productions that have been very well received by local audiences," she says.
For budding filmmakers, she urges them "to put their work online so that they can reach larger audiences and receive feedback. Many Pakistani musicians, visual artists and writers got their big break after making their work public and sharing it on social media sites. Filmmakers should also look into local film festivals and college film competitions."
Having won the Oscar she now wants to concentrate on educating people against the acid attacks. She is also busy planning for the next phase of her career. "I am currently working on two television series that are geared for Pakistani audiences. I am also simultaneously working on my next film. I would love for it to be a feature, let's see what the future brings."
So, watch out for Chinoy's next cinematic tell-all!