Saving Face at the Oscars

Published: February 3, 2012

I make films because I want them to change mindsets and spark change, says Chinoy.

In the midst of all the negativity that seems to be coming out of our country, every now and then a bright spark emerges. Sometimes it’s a win against the best Test team in the world of cricket. Sometimes it’s something a little more enduring – like Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy.

This remarkable woman’s documentary “Saving Face” has been nominated for an Oscar. Yes – you read it right – a Pakistani is going to the Oscars on the basis of a project which highlights “acid violence”. Instead of showcasing the negative, the documentary shows the resilience of its Pakistani victims. It shows how our women fight with the help of a genius, Dr Mohammad Jawad, who performs reconstructive surgery on the victims by traveling throughout the country.

Before Chinoy could zip off to represent us on that austere stage, I thought to ask a few pertinent questions:

What made you choose acid violence as a subject for your documentary?

My co-director, Daniel Junge, conceived the idea behind “Saving Face” early last year and got in touch with me to collaborate on the film. The subject matter appealed to me immediately and I agreed to join the team.

Acid violence is a systemically under reported crime that impacts hundreds of women in Southern Punjab each year and it is an issue that I feel strongly about. “Saving Face” is a story that intends to bring this issue into mainstream public discourse as equally as highlighting the incredible resilience of the survivors of acid violence. It also shows the way Pakistani citizens come to the aid of their fellow countrymen. It is a story about hope in the time of unimaginable circumstances and about the way a community heals and moves forward.

Did you face any issues while traveling to some of these areas in the Seraiki belt? Were the locals forthcoming?

My team and I didn’t face any security issues and were never put in harm’s way. But we did have to struggle against a mindset that culturally accepted such forms of violence.

The Seraiki belt has some of the lowest levels of education and highest levels of poverty in Pakistan, so it was initially difficult in terms of connecting with local communities and reaching out to survivors. However, once we had spent a considerable amount of time on the ground and had established relationships, we did not experience any further obstacles.

Stories like these often get no fanfare, but in your case it has resulted in an Oscar nomination. Do you plan to use this attention to further the cause?

Yes, I make films because I want them to change mindsets and spark change. I will be launching a national educational campaign with “Saving Face” after it premiers in March. Films have the ability to humanise a story, and I hope that “Saving Face” brings us one step closer to eradicating acid violence in Pakistan.

Even after bagging and Emmy and speaking at the TED talks, an Oscar nomination is unprecedented.  How does it feel?

To be honest, it is a surreal feeling; it has not sunk in yet and I am still in shock. Needless to say, it is a thrill to be nominated. This is the stuff dreams are made off.

I feel honoured and lucky to be able to represent Pakistan on such a prestigious platform and hope to do my country proud. The outpouring of well wishes and congratulatory messages over the past few days have left me humbled and incredibly grateful.

Filmmakers, writers, painters and other creative people are a community often scorned. How does it feel to lead them to the Oscars?

I wouldn’t go as far as saying that they are a community that is scorned, but it is true that pursuing a career in the arts in Pakistan has only recently become accepted and possible. This is an incredible time to be part of a creative community in Pakistan; our music is transcending borders; our literature is garnering international acclaim and our film industry is expanding and breaking boundaries.

I am thrilled to be a part of this movement and am sure that Pakistanis are going to achieve even bigger and better things in the future.

Tell us why your stories are more a show of resilience than one of doom and gloom for Pakistan?

Saving face is a testament to the fact that ordinary people can come together to achieve extraordinary things.

The film revolves around Dr Jawad, a renowned Pakistani British plastic surgeon who has been traveling to Pakistan for the past decade to perform surgery free of cost to people who are unable to afford treatment. Giving back to his country, Dr Jawad was able to transform these women’s lives through his generosity and commitment.

Over the course of shooting this film, a historic bill was passed by the Pakistani parliament that strengthened the punishments awarded to perpetrators of such attacks. This law was brought into existence by testimonies of survivors and the incredible will and dedication of Marvi Memon.

Similarly, a female lawyer took up the case of Zakia, a survivor who was attacked by her husband. Offering her services pro bono, this lawyer won Zakia’s case, and her husband was given two life sentences.

So, even though “Saving Face” deals with difficult subject matter, it is infused with hope and is a telling tale of the great things that can happen when people come together.

What will be the first two words of your acceptance speech, should you win?

I have absolutely no idea – I don’t want to jinx it!

Your journey has and will continue to inspire many in this nation; do you have a message for the youth of Pakistan?

I want the youth of Pakistan to know that anything is possible; 10 years ago, I was shooting my first documentary and managed to shoot half of it before realising that all my footage was missing audio! Get out there, whether it is a career in finance, film or fine art and try your best. You will surprise yourself!

A living example of her words, Chinoy has shown us that not only is anything possible if you try hard enough, it is possible every time you hold your head high and believe in yourself.

I pray that she wins  and raises our flag high at the Oscars; we will all be rooting for this momentous occasion. Good luck!

 Read more by Faisal here. Follow him @faisalkapadia.

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Faisal Kapadia

A Karachi based writer who blogs at deadpanthoughts.com and tweets @faisalkapadia (twitter.com/faisalkapadia)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Reactionary

    Great read!!! we need more ppl like her go Sharmeen bring that oscar back!!!Recommend

  • Optimist

    With people like her, it is possible for Pakistan to become big on international stage.
    .
    I know many talented directors who have graduated from NCA and other Universities. Only problem they find is that Pakistani investors don’t think film industry is a sound investment!Recommend

  • Noor

    Why we feel so obliged to be in news for western awards?

    Do we need their appreciation to reach satisfaction?Recommend

  • Shahid

    Great work by this lady! Although I think that we don’t need western awards to prove that something we create is incredible, it is good that this way we will get exposure to the international market.Recommend

  • leila rage

    @Noor: And why do you feel so obliged to hate the west?Recommend

  • amrita

    @ leila rage: I agree with what Noor said. It’s not the hatred for west. It’s hatred for our own mindset which needs a pat on the back from the west to feel worthwhile. I would really like to know how many people knew about this documentary before it was nominated for Oscars. Recommend

  • Parvez

    Its people like SOC who give you hope and make you proud. As far as I am concerned this girl is more than an Oscar winner.Recommend

  • chocolate

    @Noor:
    plz throw all the electronics out of your home and start living in a cave if you dislike west so much …seriously i just don’t understand mentality of such ppl who love to use latest western technology and cant live without it and then bad mouth west.height of hypocrisyRecommend

  • F.k

    Wonder how many ppl knew what a blog was before it became famous in the west?
    Thats ok though we have to say things like that to satisfy our inner insecurity lol

    The oscars dear readers are regarded as the height of awards for any filmaker anywhere. They get you recognition and opportunities to meet the best of the best. This is a moment pakistan shud be proud of so stop feeling weighed down by tht colonial hangover you carry around.

    Its a brand new world :) for filmakers if she wins, pakistani film projects will find backers and investors cant beat tht!Recommend

  • http://www.ahmadhammad.com Ahmad Hammad

    It is a matter of pride and joy that at last someone of our talented film makers has been acknowledged by the West.
    I, in the last week, talked of Obaid in my lecture at Punjab Law College lahore, and paid her a rich tribute, persuading people to join the field.
    Pakistanis are really very talented…. :)Recommend

  • Aasim

    Indeed something to be realy proud of.. I have my fingers crossed, praying for Ms Chinoy to be the first Pakistani to hold the Oscar.. Good Luck.. :)Recommend

  • Natasha

    @Noor:
    this is not about being nominated in the western awards.. oscars are the most prestigious awards in the world. and being nominated for oscars for the first tym is definitely something! so please dont sopil this moment by saying that!Recommend