Tonight at 8:30 EST, HBO will be airing an Oscar-winning documentary entitled Saving Face. The 40-minute film is about how Dr. Mohammad Jawad, a British-Pakistani plastic surgeon, travels to his country of origin to perform facial reconstructive surgery on women who are victims of acid attacks (warning: graphic images).
When I first heard of the film, I was duly skeptical.
Many films, whether fictional and documentary, that deal with the Indian subcontinent tend towards the condescending and fetishizing at best and demonizing and alarmist at the worst. The well-meaning ones tend to center around a white protagonist who saves the brown people people from themselves (and this trope is not limited to the Indian subcontinent). Others are all about a white person who finds his or her self through a magical journey in an exotic land or a person from said exotic land (I’m looking at you, Eat, Pray, Love). Even the ones that center around a non-white protagonist tend to other him or her.
What gives me hope that Saving Face is not like this is the fact that it was filmed by a Pakistani woman, who is now the very first Pakistani to have won an Oscar. Additionally, the doctor who is helping the women is of Pakistani descent.
What also struck me as different was the way in which the documentary’s trailer was cut.
At 0:51, the woman says that she’s happy and thanks Allah for the opportunity she has had to get the surgery. Religion is a big part of life for Pakistani women, and her reference to the Islamic deity makes me think that the documentary is going to examine the complexities of religion and culture instead of demonizing anything non-Western.
While I firmly believe that the patriarchy so deeply ingrained in Islam hurts the fight against gender-based violence in Muslim-dominant countries, I also acknowledge the reality that most Muslims are going to stay Muslims, and that it can help to reframe religion in working for change in Muslim countries. Acid attacks are far from condoned by Islam and if referring to theological arguments against them prevents more acid attacks from occurring, then from a practical perspective, I’m all for it.
All is not perfect, of course. Those involved with the film fear that the Oscar win and publicity might hurt the women who are the subjects of the documentary. However, if the trailer in any indication, this is a major step forward in terms of both the fight against acid attacks and for agency in story-telling for non-white people trying to bring about change from within their communities.