While most of the Academy Awards attention focused on the big categories like Best Picture and Best Actress, the best film of the year may be “Saving Face,” which won Best Documentary Short Subject. It’s about women whose faces and eyes have been burned off in acid attacks.
The film was directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a native of Karachi, Pakistan. It chronicles the lives of Pakistani acid attack victims and a British doctor working to help them. According to the film, there are over 100 acid attacks every year in Pakistan, and about 80 percent of the victims are women. The attacks are particularly heinous because the goal is not to kill (though that sometimes happens) but to disfigure and blind. Even worse, the attacker is usually the victim’s own husband or family.
The attacks are not random acts of violence, but instead intended to punish women for refusing marriage proposals, bringing dishonor upon the family, or simply as a form of domestic violence. In some cases girls have been attacked with acid in conservative rural areas for daring to attend school; some of the attacks are carried out by other women. Acid attacks are most common in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as Cambodia, Bangladesh and India.
“Saving Face” shows the horrific circumstances many of these women find themselves in. One of the film subjects is forced to live with the husband and family who intentionally disfigured her. Women in patriarchic cultures such as Pakistan and Afghanistan have few social resources to begin with and women who are blinded and disfigured have even fewer options. They are often shunned by society and left with little or no means of support, much less get the psychological and physical treatment they need.
The Pakistani government has recently taken measures to prevent acid attacks. In May 2011 the Lower House of Parliament unanimously passed the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill, which provides prison terms of life in prison for those convicted of the crime. Despite such protections, the attacks continue; many women do not report the crime for fear of retribution or the difficulty of filing and seeing through a criminal complaint.
“Saving Face” will air on HBO on March 8 and can also be seen on the “2012 Academy Award Nominated Short Films” program at theaters across the country.