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Saving face

I came away from the movie unders­tandin­g my countr­y much better than I had when I went in.

By Bina Shah

The writer is an author, most recently of Slum Child (2010). She has written for numerous publications including Dawn, The Friday Times and Chowk

Saving Face is one of the most difficult movies I’ve ever had to watch, but I was unable to take my eyes off the screen for the entire duration of the film. I was lucky to see the Oscar-winning documentary at a private screening in Karachi, because it’s uncertain when the film will be released for general showing in Pakistan because of its sensitive subject matter. But Saving Face is a movie that every man and woman in Pakistan must watch, to understand the depth of the problem of domestic violence in our country, as well as the resilience and courage of Pakistani women who continue to strive for equality and justice in every strata of society.

First off, prepare yourself for the absolute horror of seeing acid attack victims on screen. We’ve all seen photographs of Fakhra Younus and other women who have suffered acid attacks, but it’s nothing like the impact of seeing them on film, talking about their ordeals, relating their stories, weeping tears of pain and frustration at their circumstances. The physical damage of their bodies is almost outdone by the emotional and spiritual damage of their minds and souls. The moment Zakia, one of the women featured in the movie, came on screen, facial skin burned away, lips askew, one eye completely fused shut, everyone in the audience gasped. There were many points in the film where I had to look away because what I was seeing was too much to bear. But their voices continued to ring in our ears, and I had to bring my eyes back to witness them again and again.

The movie is strung on a narrative that seems simple at first. Two women, Zakia and Rukhsana, have been burned with acid by their husbands. Dr Mohammad Jawad comes from the UK armed with advanced plastic surgery techniques in order to help repair their faces. In the meantime, Zakia fights a court case against her husband, who has been threatening her and her family, while Rukhsana is forced to go back and live with her husband’s family, even though they have taken away her access to her daughter. The Pakistani parliament considers and passes a law making acid attack a heinous crime in Pakistan.

Because the film ends with a positive outcome for Zakia and a somewhat hopeful outcome for Rukhsana, I had wondered before watching Saving Face whether or not it was a fairy tale that offered a feel-good story of redemption in order to please its viewers. But I’m glad to say this isn’t so. The narrative is straightforward and linear, which is absolutely necessary because the entire subject is so complex; the simplicity of the narrative’s trajectory serves to highlight, not whitewash, that complexity. It considers the issue of acid attacks from all angles: the medical, cultural, societal, and legal aspects. But the filmmakers stay out of the frame of the camera, allowing the women and the other characters in the movie to speak in their own words about the impact of the attacks on their lives.

I had also wondered whether the figure of Dr Mohammed Jawad represented a white knight sort of saviour, flying in with technology from the West in order to save the blighted women of the East. I’d heard rumblings that he was a chauvinistic figure who treated his patients with insensitivity and condescension. This, too, is untrue; I saw nothing but his warmth and compassion throughout the movie, and his offhand humourous — sometimes inappropriate — comments were characteristic of doctors who use dark humour in order to deal with the monstrous suffering of their patients. It’s the way they maintain a professional distance from the people they’re trying to help.

But most important of all, Saving Face does not portray Rukhsana or Zakia as complete victims. Yes, they have suffered one of the worst physical ordeals imaginable, but they have survived it, and they are fighting back. I was astonished by their faith, their courage, their unwillingness to succumb to the temptation of suicide. Both women travel far distances to reach Dr Jawad, they stay strong for their children, they maintain relationships of equality and partnership with the doctor, the lawyer who’s fighting Zakia’s case, the women of the Acid Survivors Foundation. They are resolute in blaming their husbands — false forgiveness is not for them — but are determined to fight in order to create a better future for themselves and their children. I salute their courage and the dedication of those who help them in their fight.

Their stories, and the images and sounds of Saving Face all work together to create a rich tapestry that provokes not just an emotional response, but an intellectual one. I came away from the movie understanding my country much better than I had when I went in. Pakistan is full of misogyny and patriarchy, but there’s a better Pakistan struggling against that one to emerge, one that wants a modern society with no place for the ancient cruelties, for criminals who escape without punishment, for women to take their place alongside men as equally valued members of society. The women of Saving Face, the issue of acid attacks and the greater issue of domestic violence, and the struggle to raise awareness and bring about change in the law and in societal attitudes towards women are the crucible in which a better Pakistan will be born one day. And the women of Pakistan are the ones who will lead the charge.

The Express Tribune