I’m not particularly interested in the Oscars. Surprising really as I have recently taken to making films myself, but the Oscar winning films are often of little interest (Inception and Inglorious Bastards are rare exceptions). My ears pricked up however, when news trickled through that there had been a first-ever Pakistani Oscar winner.
Just the words “Pakistani winner” was a pick-me-up for someone like me, who is preoccupied with presenting Pakistan in a more balanced and healthy way.
A few weeks later, gathered with great and beautiful British Pakistanis at the High Commission in London, it was a pleasure to greet the Oscar winner herself – Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. We sipped mango juice beneath chandeliers and I even put on a shalwar kameez for the occasion. Good news. Warm feelings in the room as spring sunshine poured in through open windows. A giant portrait of Jinnah looked down on the packed room like an old friend.
A few speeches were made – unusually short – and our attention was drawn to several TV monitors in the room, where we watched some of the award winning film. And then, just as I had experienced when talking about flood victims in the presence of a Prince, an uncomfortable feeling crept over me.
The screens were filled with the mutilated faces of female victims of acid attacks. Suddenly the glamour of the heavily made up Pakistani lovelies in the room faded. The superficiality of a diplomatic function (and ultimately of the Oscars) was lifted and in the silence that fell around the room you could feel hearts beating in chests. The hero of the film appears to be British Mohammad Jawad – a plastic surgeon on a quest to fix those most disfigured – but ultimately to shine a spotlight on this most grotesque of crimes – the brutal defacement of women.
Laws have been changed and by the sounds of it, potentially behaviour has been too as a result of the film Saving Face. Laudable indeed. And the film, if you see it – is a story of resilience and good spirited people. Uplifting even, in a strange way.
However. This is only half the story. One face.
The greatest shame is the damage this film does to the perception of Pakistan for those people who won’t see it, but just read the headline which isn’t read as “Pakistani wins Oscar”. The news that screams loudest is “Pakistan Director wins Oscar for film on Acid Attacks Victims” - see Reuters, Gulf News, and even The Himalayan. As the New York Times reports, Pakistan is wearily accustomed to be being the focus of bad news.
It feeds straight into the narrative that Pakistan is full of barbaric maniacs who, despite professing the moral values of Islam, will slash and burn their own most cherished mothers. It devalues a nation.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is a true inspiration to women not just in Pakistan. She has used her skills and creativity to bring about meaningful change to a foul societal problem and bring funding and attention more broadly to The Acid Survivors Trust. Even Britain has seen an acid attack in recent weeks – a racist attack on a woman pushing a baby with a pram.
By receiving an award from a US-centric organisation in an industry “run by Jews” – this film walks straight into the mouths of the conspiracy theorists. The last winner of this award for short documentary went to a feel good movie about migrant children in Israel. The one before that about a remarkable individual from Zimbabwe. Anyone who says the Oscars isn’t political is kidding themselves.