Hope in Pakistan: The Oscar Win that Elated a Country

Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy accept the Oscar for the Best Documentary Short Subject for their film "Saving Face" at the 84th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California, February 26, 2012.

The news that Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won Pakistan’s first Oscar is a bittersweet victory. While Pakistan rejoices in the worldwide recognition of an Oscar for Saving Face in the category of Documentary Short, the topic co-producers Daniel Junge and Obaid-Chinoy selected casts more negative light on the struggle for female emancipation there. Fitting then, that Obaid-Chinoy dedicated her Oscar to that effort in her acceptance speech: “All the women in Pakistan working for change, don’t give up on your dreams, this one is for you.”

On one hand, while Pakistan produces educated, enlightened and talented females like Obaid-Chinoy, it also bears witness to victims of acid throwing like 25-year-old Rukhsana who is featured in the documentary. In an interview with me, two days before the Oscar Awards, Obaid-Chinoy said, “I have always felt that if you are educated and empowered you can become the voice for those that are marginalized and disenfranchised.” The variations that can produce such juxtaposed lives—in a developing country like Pakistan—are the stratum of education, social milieu and background.

On Friday I interviewed Obaid-Chinoy, Junge and the subject of their documentary, Dr. Mohammad Jawad at a pre-Oscar celebration hosted by Pakistan’s Los Angeles Consular General, Riffat Masood. Speaking about the complexity of pessimism and hope in Pakistan, Obaid-Chinoy said that despite the problems she felt optimistic. “We have a strong feminine presence: female lawyers and legislators fighting on behalf of these women, who hear the testimonies, write the bills and get them passed in parliament. This shows no matter where we come from in Pakistan, there are people working to make it a more tolerant society,” she said.

Obaid-Chinoy also won an Emmy award for her documentary, Taliban Generation(2010) and is the first non-American to win the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists. When asked if her trajectory as a Pakistani filmmaker came from activism or the creative need to make films, she responded that it was based on the “desire to help others.” She continued, “And wherever I have made films around the world, the topics I have chosen are all about giving a voice to the voiceless.” The voice from Pakistan resonated far and as she stepped off the Oscar stage, humanitarians Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt congratulated her and got a copy ofSaving Face. Obaid-Chinoy told the New York Times, “It reinforces the fact you can be anyone, come from anywhere and as long as you do quality work it gets rewarded.”

At a Saving Face film screening in Pomona College on February 27, Daniel Junge—the documentary’s Colorado based director— talked to me about the impact of the Oscar victory while holding his golden statuette, “Pakistan is a country too easily summed up by the international media in simple terms, it is by far the most complex place I have been to.” I asked him if this film would reinforce some of those narrow views as he “felt people would come to the movie” with a “certain bias.” He observed, “They owe it to the documentary film genre to come with open eyes and realize the film is about Pakistanis addressing their problems, not just a showcase of problems.”

This reinforced what Obaid-Chinoy said in her interview, that as an “emancipated woman” who enjoyed “liberties” she produced the Oscar winning documentary because it perturbed her that “many other women don't have that freedom.”

In 2010, Junge heard British Pakistani plastic surgeon, Dr. Jawad talking to BBC Radio about surgery on acid victims. When he went to Pakistan to catalogue the doctor’s story, the trip became the germination of collaboration between Junge and Obaid-Chinoy. Saving Face documents the reconstructive work of the Dr. Jawad on some of his patients who are victims of acid attacks in Pakistan. It focuses on the stories of Rukhsana and Zakia and their efforts to overcome the legal, social and psychological repercussions of that violence.

There are 100 reported cases of female acid attacks in Pakistan annually yet it is a universal problem with pockets prevailing in South Asia, South America and Africa. Dr. Jawad initiated cutting edge techniques of burn treatment in the reconstruction of Katie Piper— a British model who had sulphuric acid thrown on her face by a stalker in 2008. I asked Dr. Jawad to comment on his assertion that female victimization is a social predicament spread in developing countries— regardless of religion and culture. He said with characteristic British humor, “In Pakistan, this is a man-made disease—not a religious phenomenon; by addressing it and giving the idiotic perpetrators a swift kick in the rear, some hope can exist.” He went on to clarify that the core causes of acid throwing are poverty, illiteracy and ignorance.

Consular General Masood also discussed the oppression yet optimism of women in South Asia, “People do not talk about such problems but due to the growth of civil democracy, Pakistan is moving ahead. We are addressing social issues, moving towards solutions and establishing better laws thanks to the activism of people like Shermeen.” Pakistan’s government seems to agree, as Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani announced today that a civil award would be conferred on Obaid-Chinoy for the Oscar win.

Amidst the agony, hope does exist. Saving Face highlights the mêlée for women’s rights in Pakistan by activists, lawyers and journalists and politicians like Marvi Memon. The movement led Pakistan’s Parliament to pass two Bills— The Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Laws— in December2011, that enforced imprisonment and heavy fines on the perpetrators of the crimes. I asked about the significance of those landmark Bills and Obaid-Chinoy responded that “the documentary is really a story about how educated women can help underprivileged women in Pakistan.”

Reacting to the Oscar win Glee actor Iqbal Theba, told me at a celebration that as a Pakistani American he derives much “pleasure and pride that a fellow Pakistani” won the Oscar for “voicing an opinion which needs to be heard, not to mention, an opinion not many people are uncomfortable about.” He continued in his authoritative Gleeprincipal’s voice, “If you are a nation with a conscience, you need to take a hard look at who you REALLY are.”

Pakistan’s Los Angeles Consular General, Riffat Masood admitted the topic of the film is “disturbing” for mainstream audiences but stated “don’t stigmatize us.” Her take is that Pakistanis in the past few decades have “recognized the problem of female exploitation” and have been “diligently working towards reformation.” She added that acid throwing “stretches from Uganda to Cambodia” and hopes Chinoy-Obaid’s Oscar win “will bring global awareness about acid throwing.”

I watched Saving Face at the Pomona College auditorium which was bursting at its seams, one day after the film’s Oscar win with a Q and A session afterwards with Dr. Jawad and Junge. The audience reacted visibly and verbally to the documentary. They gasped at the horrific stories of Rukhsana and Zakia; laughed at Dr. Jawad’s flippant quips; snorted when the perpetrators were interviewed and cheered at the sentencing of one of the criminals who got two consecutive life sentences for acid throwing. At one point there was a palpable lump-in-the-throat silence when Dr. Jawad stopped an interview with a victim of acid throwing, took off his foggy glasses and wiped his eyes. It was therapeutic. And promising.

The post film questions focused on the victims and how Americans could help and Dr. Jawad shared the Acid Prevention Foundation http://acidsurvivorspakistan.org/you-can-help non-for-profit website set up especially for that purpose. Saving Face airs on HBO on March 8 in the US and Canada (8:30-9:15 p.m. ET/PT).