Saving Face, the Oscar award winning short documentary by Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is a film that touches the heart and leaves a deep seated helplessness in the soul. The film appeals to the logical, educated and ‘civilized’ human conscious for a sound reason as to why a hundred odd men in Pakistan, and many more across the world, think it acceptable to shower their female partners with acid, every year. Is it a mere act of patriarchal violence or is it something far more brutal? To be absolutely honest and blunt, a rape victim is violated both physically and emotionally, and it must be an arduous task to overcome the fear and inner emptiness. But having watched snippets of the lives of a few acid attack survivors through the film, how are these women to redeem their lives? They are not even given a chance to forget about their fates. The tragedy that their lives have become, stare at them daily. Zakia is strong willed and is ready to wring the courts of justice till she gets one up on her husband. Her willingness to file for divorce is in itself an act of bravado of a variety that only desperation can conjure. She supports her two kids, juggles the courts and the lawyers and is also hopeful of getting her face restored through surgery. Amidst all these sub plots of tremendous optimism there lays the truth; Zakia is fearful, and ashamed, of stepping out in public without covering her burnt face. On the other end of the spectrum is Rukhsana, a young woman in her mid-twenties who was not only subjected to an acid attack by the husband but was also slated to be burnt alive by a pint of gasoline and a few matchsticks. Her story is not one of courage but of cowardice. Rukhsana goes to a safe house, only to return back to her husband. For the sake of the kids, is the reason shared with us, but the real reason is a sense of defeat and an acceptance of life that is imprisoned by circumstances. To watch her cry is almost obscene. She has been cordoned off in her own house by a brick wall, so that she cannot even see her daughter. And the husband wants to conjugate as well, which leaves Rukhsana pregnant in the middle of her impending face reconstruction surgery. She is sincere in praying that her next born will be a boy who, by the grace of Allah, will bring back happiness in her world. All the fiction films of this world could not have managed to create such an ironic tale of suffering and hope.
In the midst of these two heroes, is the knight who goes by the name of Dr. Jawad. He is a loud mouthed, rich and professional UK-Pakistani plastic surgeon who, by his own admission, has become famous because he can make them bigger or smaller. The film bounces off him and creates an easy access for the viewers to get engaged with it. It is the doctor who cries on hearing the stories of pain, who calls the operation a party and who gives Zakia a high five on hearing that her husband has been awarded with a double life imprisonment. If he was an actor, he would have won an Oscar himself. But Allah definitely will have a few Oscars of His own lined up for him in the afterlife.
Saving Face has been lucky to have serendipity on its side. Many instances in the film could have been left out of the final edit if not for them being turning out so positively:
The Pakistani parliament passed the bill to increase the punishment of acid attack offenders to life imprisonment, unanimously; a rarity in politics of the region.
After a delay in the verdict, the court finally returns with one that favours Zakia.
And the most important one of all, Rukhsana actually delivers a healthy baby boy to keep her hopes of a happy life intact.
Tragedies that end on a happy note are rare but it feels tremendously good to see it happening on screen. If people are not moved by anything else in the film, they must surely be moved by these instances of fortune. If for nothing else, the film deserves an Oscar for celebrating life!
When I watch a documentary, it is a difficult task to critique the film, the art form. The most obvious reason for this is the fact that the subject of the film is real, its protagonists are real people and its settings are out of real towns and cities. In a sense, a documentary is the closest that a film can get to life itself; life in its most horrendous, beautiful, charming or sadistic avatar. And because the film is so real, the story takes over and I get totally engaged, absorbed, and even sympathetic at times. The film making and its paraphernalia are sidelined for a bit as the mood of the story takes over. Saving Face is no exception. Reality strikes right at the beginning, the opening shot of Zakia’s photograph taken before the attack sets the tone of the film, making it a story of longing of the days gone by. In some shots there is an obvious attempt to underline the grotesqueness of the faces that are to be saved. The camera angles highlight the scars by being oblique, moving from a mid-shot to a close up rather unannounced, almost voyeuristic. True, such acts of violence can never be completely undone. True, the faces were not appetising to look at. But sympathy victimizes the victim further and pushes them aside into a different group, othering them, to speak academically. The self conscious doctor gives the film a character that infuses jovialness and takes away from the pain ever so slightly. His caricature is the keyhole through which the audience (who are mostly of the same class and social background as him) peep into the lives of these scarred women. On occasions, the camera tries really hard to get inside the psyche of Zakia and Rukhsana, prompting the former to ask her daughter to recite a joke, and the latter to make decorative bangles. But these frames look made up, unreal. Maybe such films demand a different level of empathy from the film maker, one where the protagonists are not just subjects but a raison d’etre of the film. But the task of a film or any art really, is to initiate dialogue, and Saving Face has been successful in doing that, more so because of the Oscar win. Congratulations for that.