Saving Face: A masterpiece documentary

Published: April 30, 2012

She battles the depression of not being able to go out in public without being covered by dark sunglasses and a burqa. PHOTO SCREEN SHOT

She battles the depression of not being able to go out in public without being covered by dark sunglasses and a burqa. PHOTO SCREEN SHOT When Saving Face began, I found it shamefully uncomfortable to view the victims. PHOTO SCREEN SHOT Each of the victims in Saving Face is so horrifically disfigured, that watching them, at least initially, is a heartbreakingly painful task PHOTO SCREEN SHOT

With a runtime of barely 40 minutes, Saving Face is short for a documentary, but it has the might to touch the soul with the potency of a powerful full length feature.

Directed by Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, this 2012 Academy Award winner for ‘Best Documentary (Short Subject)’ is a glimpse into the lives of several acid attack victims in Pakistan, their tormentors, and the good people fighting to help them find some light in the haunting darkness of their situation.

One of these Good Samaritans is Dr Mohammad Jawad, a plastic surgeon of Pakistani origin, who has come from his home in London to meet with these patients. When Saving Face begins, Dr Jawad is somewhat cocky, proclaiming he is ‘damn good’ confidently telling us about his professional capabilities. He tells us that the sheer number of cases he was learning of in Pakistan, while in London, forced him to come back. But, as Dr Jawad meets one patient after another, listening to endless heartbreaking stories of helplessness, injustice, and victimisation, for a moment he is also left shaken and overwhelmed, as he stammers to the camera,

I – I… just… I just I cannot understand this.

Quoting the Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan, the documentary tells us the startling fact that there are over 100 acid attack cases in Pakistan, and goes on to estimate that far many more cases are left unreported. What is even more startling is that all of the victims presented in Saving Face were hurt either by men who had their romantic interests rejected by them, or by their own husbands – often with the assistance of members of their family.

With several parts of their faces, necks, and even shoulders melted into scar tissue, each of the victims in Saving Face is so horrifically disfigured, that watching them, at least initially, is a heartbreakingly painful task. But, as each of these victims comes to terms with what happened to them, and finds joy in positive events like plastic surgery, legislations passed in parliament, and successful court battles against their oppressors, they seem to find what peace they can. In one particularly poignant moment, a group of acid attack victims stand together in court, even making jokes somewhat related to their own plight.

While some of the victims presented in Saving Face seem to be stuck in a cycle of hopelessness, with one tearfully admitting that facing economic hardship, she has little choice but to go back to the in-laws that disfigured half her face, some show resilience that is incredible to watch.

Zakia, who lost the right side of her face, including her eye and some of her left side, is an admirable symbol of steel in Saving Face. She battles the depression of not being able to go out in public without being covered by dark sunglasses and a burqa, and examines pictures of how she used to look, with sorrow. But in court, she relentlessly pursues the husband who attacked her with dogged tenacity. And when discussing her plastic surgery case with Dr Jawad, she exudes immense positivity.

In private moments with her young daughter, she displays a soft tenderness, lending strength to her child who is unable to cope with the sorrow of the tragedy that has befallen her mother. And when eventually her surgery is done, and her prosthetic face is placed on, she is very cheerful, despite looking far from what she was. Zaikia is an inspiration as I have ever seen one.

Making a documentary doesn’t necessarily require the same sort of skill-set as does that a film. And in Saving Face, where there the subject matter is powerful enough already, the two film-makers have smartly let the camera do the talking, without unnecessary post production. The film is also astutely edited, while camera shots are fantastic, lingering and peeking at the right moments. One such point in the film is when one of the attackers is being interviewed. Smirking, he denies throwing acid on his spouse, claiming she did it to herself. Here, the camera sneaks quick glances at his knuckles which show clear signs of acid burn, and point to his lies.

When Saving Face began, I found it shamefully uncomfortable to view the victims, but as time passed by, I found it easier, until eventually, I was looking past their bodies, and seeing their person. Aside from bringing international attention to a sorrowful situation, Saving Face is powerful in that it helps humanise those we would be too fearful to see. Perhaps in a way, this masterpiece of a documentary is not only saving the victims, but the viewers as well.

I have read local criticism that the Academy Award victory was a decision driven by politics, and that the film is a cheap attempt at winning an Oscar. While the Academy Awards are often driven by politics, Saving Face is the real deal and there is nothing artificial about this film. Then, there are others criticising it for simply showing a negative view of Pakistan. These are myopic thoughts driven by misplaced levels of nationalism, and preconceived notions by those not having seen the film.  If the film does anything for Pakistan, then in actuality, it is a highly patriotic film.

Watch Saving Face here

Read more by Noman here or follow him on Twitter @pugnate                                                                                                                                                     

Do you think the documentary Saving Face deserved an Oscar?

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Noman Ansari

Noman Ansari

The author is the editor-in-chief of IGN Pakistan, and has been reviewing films and writing opinion pieces for The Express Tribune as well as Dawn for five years. He tweets as @Pugnate (

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

  • AL

    Apart from patriotism, the documentary also portrayed the general perception of the-disco-mulla-fatwa-factory-type-liberals, when Plastic surgeon was found saying,

    “And if you can restore somebody’s life, I don’t think I need to be bloody religious to go where I need to go eventually.”Recommend

  • Parvez

    Have not as yet managed to get my hands on this but your write up gives one an excellent glimpse of what to expect. Recommend

  • munchkin bob

    good morningRecommend

  • ME

    Um yeah just have a look at this. A little more about “Saving Face”.

    “Daniel Junge, the film’s co-director, insists he was not aware of any irregularities. “Dr Jawad is the expert, so we took him at his word,” he says by telephone from the UK. “I realise he caused frustrations but quite frankly, because of the language barrier, I often wasn’t aware of what was going on.”

    What has happened since the Oscar victory further disturbs those who take issue with the film. Both Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the other co-director, and Jawad, riding the wave of media attention the film’s success has garnered, have said they will set up their own foundations to help acid survivors. How this helps the existing network is unclear. What’s certain is that it is the people in Pakistan who have been working for years on this issue feel that they are best placed to lead the charge.”Recommend

  • Ayesha Pervez

    Where can I avail this documentary?Recommend

  • Atika.rehman

    @Ayesha Pervez: A link has now been embedded at the end. Please have a look!


  • Ayesha Pervez

    @Atika Rehman: Thank you :-)Recommend

  • Saira Shah

    A very accurate reflection of the documentary film- The piece in the National so reeks of “CRAP” i dont think the filmmakers have ever said they would launch an organization- They are working on an outreach program thats v different, its an educational program- In any case, watch the film yourself and judge why let others color your judgment?Recommend

  • stanley oliver

    Saving Face was heavily dramatised and misleading, a passing inconvenience – say Doctors at Acid Survivors Foundation


  • rija

    doesnt this documentary reinforce the fact tht the looks and face of a woman matter soo much tht u r identityless if ur face is disfigured? if these women r rehabilitated by giving motivational talks abt overcoming wt the society says and be true to who they really are then i believe the documentary wud have had more meaning. rather than being focused on how giving back the face and coming up to the standards of looking normal made these women reclaim their status in the society!Recommend

  • Syed Owais Mukhtar

    saving lives is more necessary than the saving faces!Recommend

  • Denny Morgan

    This is bitter reality of our society and we should admit it. But on the other hand we should not go in ext-ream like two weeks age women rights bill is passed by Pakistan Nation Assembly . Recommend

  • Gibby

    @rija: Recommend

  •!/Gibbyk1 Gibby

    Wow. This isn’t about conforming to society’s standards surrounding womens’ looks. Having a disfigured face becomes your identity. This is about helping restore some sense of normalcy to the lives of these women. These woman aren’t trying to make a social statement of some sort by being disfigured, their trying to get some semblance of their lives back. You want them to embrace their scars? Why don’t you contemplate the sheer idiocy of that notion next you look in a mirror and see the same person you’ve seen for your entire life. Yes, it sucks that looks matter for women, but even if they didn’t, these women would still be stared at, pitied and in some cases shunned because of the scars they carry. To give them a chance to break out f that nightmare surely is the right focus for the film. Recommend

  •!/Gibbyk1 Gibby

    make up your mind mate, are they “disco-mulla-fatwa-factory-types” or “-liberals” because they can’t really be both, or do you just enjoy combining cliches until they mean nothing at all really. Speaking of which, here’s another one for you: ‘pseudo-intellectual’ Also enlighten me, is Heaven the exclusive domain of the religious, or does being a good person and actually helping others play any part in it? Strange how one of the few things most religions seem to agree on is that the latter matters as much, isn’t it?Recommend

  • AL

    Please enlighten me, is it possible/advisable to go, “where one need to go eventually” by not being the “bloody religious” but the Restorer of a Tart’s life?

    Ohh, and btw that plastic surgeon also found saying, “Although I love the breast work – but I really known for my burn’s work.” Recommend

  •!/Gibbyk1 Gibby

    Wow, friend. I couldn’t enlighten you if I tried. I’m no miracle worker. I think you seriously need to look inside your own soul and figure out whether you’re headed where you need to go eventually, when you consider women who’ve been scarred by hateful cowards “tarts”.
    Oh and a plastic surgeon who does breast work as well as burn work? Shocking. Hope you’re better at sarcasm than you are at sympathy, because that’s every plastic surgeon on the planet mate. Religious or otherwise. By your logic, all cancer doctors and ob/gyns’ are going to hell, simply for helping people. Do you see how twisted that is, or is it fun doing this?Recommend

  • AL

    Beta Gibran, I never applied or emphasized my own logic or any logic you’re pointing out. All i was saying is it’s not necessary that you have expertise in every field of life, if you’re a good plastic surgeon better stay there and do good deeds and avoid trying to be expert on other fields especially religion. There was certainly no point in this documentary to involve religion or unless you’re working on the-script-for-Muslims-to-get-an-Oscar.Recommend