When Pakistani film director Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy made "Saving Face," she tackled one of the hidden taboos of her society: acid attacks by men on women. Now her film has won an Oscar for best documentary short. RFE/RL’s Heather Maher spoke with Chinoy before the Oscars about why she made the film.
RFE/RL: You were asked by the American filmmaker Daniel Junge to co-direct "Saving Face" after he heard about Doctor Mohammad Jawad on the BBC. What made you say "yes"?
Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy:
Of course being a woman who's grown up in Pakistan and who's had a fairly emancipated lifestyle in Karachi, I wanted to discuss this issue because if Pakistan can produce women like myself and produce women like Zakia and Ruksana, who are the two main characters in my film, then there's definitely some state of schizophrenia going on in the country.
Because here are empowered women, and here are women who are literally treated like cattle. So that's how the genesis of the film was born and what was really important for me to showcase was that this film was about a problem that exists in Pakistan but it was also as much about people coming back to Pakistan, and people within Pakistan, trying to tackle the problem.
RFE/RL: Tell us about Zakia. An article in "The Guardian" newspaper about your film described her face as looking "as if half of it has been rubbed out. What's left is one eye, half a nose and a mouth that can no longer smile."
Zakia wanted to get a divorce from her husband who was an...alcoholic. And when she asked him for a divorce, he said that he wouldn't [give her one]. So she went to court instead. And when [he found out], he told her he would teach her a lesson.
So one day when she was coming out of the courtroom, he threw acid on her face, and said, "Now go ahead and divorce me." He wanted her to spend the rest of her life within the four walls of her home. And he wanted her to regret the decision of divorcing him.
RFE/RL: In the film you didn't just show the horrific result of what happens to these women -- you also show what has been done to combat this kind of violence. There is now a law punishing men who throw acid in a woman's face that carries a stiff prison sentence.
Yes, I thought it was important, and so did [my co-director Daniel Junge], that this was not going to be a story of despair, but this was going to be a story of hope because far too many stories of despair come out of Pakistan.
But while this story is a story of despair, it shows that women who are educated are helping these uneducated women.
Lawyers are fighting their cases; female parliamentarians are hearing their testimony and drafting bills. So there is a lot of work being done to make sure this does not continue in Pakistan.
RFE/RL: Is the new law against acid attacks being enforced and having an effect?
The law is finally being enforced, slowly, but surely. It's going to take a long time for it to be implemented in the manner that it should be implemented, but we believe that the first step has been taken.
At least there exists legislation that now when somebody throws acid on a woman's face he will be sent to jail...there will be punishment for it. Because before, of course, men would throw acid and get away with going to prison for sometimes less than two or three years.
What, of course, we haven't been able to tackle is the fact that men who throw acid on women are usually related to them, and the families find it hard to press charges against them, because there's a lot of shame involved and somehow women are made to believe it's their fault that this has happened.
So now education, outreach programs need to be launched in the areas where this does happen to educate women that they should come forward and prosecute the men who do this, despite the shame that's associated with it.
RFE/RL: Has the film been shown in Pakistan yet?
The film has not been shown in Pakistan yet, but Daniel and I are working constantly to ensure that we can show the film because one of the reasons that we made the film was to educate communities within Pakistan about this horrific act and about how women suffer. We want people to realize that a single act of throwing acid on a woman's face completely ruins her life.
RFE/RL: How have audiences outside of Pakistan who have seen the film reacted? Are they surprised that this sort of thing goes on?
The film was released in select cinemas in the United States and we've had some very favorable responses.
People have, of course, been uncomfortable watching some of the footage because you're looking at horribly maimed women; I mean you're looking at women whose faces are partially melted off.
But most people have come out of the theaters saying that they were hopeful that work was being done to rehabilitate these women and to ensure that no other women in Pakistan have to endure that. And so, of course, our message of hope seems to have resonated with audiences.