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Well Deserved Oscar: Dr. Jawad on 'Saving Face'

There has been an understandable windfall of reporting recently on the Oscar winners for Documentary (short) films announced Feb. 26 at the 84th Academy Awards ceremony namely Pakistani-Canadian Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and American Daniel Junge for Saving Face, a very well-deserved recognition for both filmmakers. But there was also a third musketeer involved in the success of this documentary, one who has to be highlighted too, writes Ras H. Siddiqui..

Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi
(Above): “Saving Face” co-directors Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and Daniel Junge pose with their Oscar awards in the press room at the 84th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Calif., Feb. 26.

For viewers here in the U.S., winning an Oscar does generate excitement but not to such a national or presidential level as has recently occurred in Pakistan.  With her work in this film Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has certainly made Pakistanis and South Asian women very proud. But there was also a third musketeer involved in the success of this documentary. His name is Dr. Mohammad Ali Jawad, a man whose work as a plastic surgeon provided the focus for Saving Face and he was in the San Francisco Bay area recently where we caught up with him.

The issue brought to the forefront in Saving Face is very grim. The brutal actions of a few people from Pakistan in this documentary produce a very strong viewer reaction including one of anger, disbelief and yes, even hope. Now that we have seen the documentary at an event at the Chandni Restaurant in Newark, Calif., Mar. 4, one can now understand why actress Sandra Bullock was teary eyed when Sharmeen was making her Oscar acceptance speech.

The prime focus of this short film was on the two acid attack victims Zakia and Rukhsana, but the role of Dr. Mohammad Ali Jawad stands out clearly and powerfully too. That he was present at this PACC event on Mar. 4 was an added incentive for us to attend.

One of the reasons for the success of Saving Face was Dr. Jawad playing his unique and remarkable role, i.e. being himself.  Unfortunately, since technically he was not “acting” he could not be nominated for an Oscar award!

The dangers of tezaab (Acid) being thrown on women’s faces by rejected lovers, jealous suitors, abusive husbands and even extremists targeting women have been discussed before in Pakistan and other countries in the region and what this film has done is to bring the subject on to the world stage.

Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi
(Above): Dr. Jawad examines Zakia. [Photo: Asad Faruqui]

Ironically it was the work of Dr. Jawad in Britain that became the starting point of the Saving Face journey as news reports of his treatment of acid attack victim Katie Piper spread far beyond his “Nip n Tuck Surgery” in London.  Until he met Katie who has called him her hero most of Dr. Jawad’s work on acid attack victims had been in Pakistan. Daniel Junge and Sharmeen took the story from there and the rest is now history.

After the film was shown at this venue Dr. Jawad took to the stage and followed up with a short talk and a question and answer session. “I just got lucky that Daniel contacted me,” he added, after hearing about his work on Katie.

He said that we all have a moral responsibility to contribute to our countries of origin. “Giving back is good fun, I enjoy it too,” he said.

On the grim subject matter Dr. Jawad said that every decent Pakistani condemns such acts and one should not mistake these deranged happenings as standard practice, but they do occur and somehow as a society we have failed these women. “Sharmeen was very passionate about this,” he said.  “We should overcome this menace,” he added. “Hopefully we can all work together” to address this problem.

This scribe took the opportunity to ask some separate questions to Dr. Jawad for this article. Here are his replies:

Q: You described “Saving Face” as both a professional and a personal effort. Why was this so personal for you?

A: I am still deeply connected to my homeland where I was educated almost free. I felt that it was my moral responsibility to pay back to my society. Luckily, in my case it is through the few skills I have acquired over many years which I am now sharing. On a lighter note any excuse or chance to go home ... this works doubly well for me.

Q: Managing expectations was described by you as one of your most difficult tasks. Were you somewhat successful in this area amongst your patients in Pakistan?

A: I guess I am still working on it and a lot more is to be done in future as it’s a staged procedure most of time. Surgery and surgeons certainly have their limitations.

Q: Who approached you on making this documentary and what motivated you to agree?

A: Daniel contacted me from Denver, Colorado after he heard my interview on the BBC World Service when My Beautiful Face was broadcast in the U.K., October 2009. I had already started the project in January 2009 in Karachi and was visiting, continuing it every 3-4 months. There was no formality. We did not even have a plot but I trusted this brave man coming all the way from the U.S. to document an ugly side of the society and showing something positive too, that a Pakistani doctor is addressing the issue. It seemed like a great idea.

Q: How do you retain such a positive attitude in your line of work?

A: It’s a great joy sharing and giving back. Try it. It certainly works for me. I sleep better and my children respect me.

This writing is not a review of Saving Face because many have already been and will be written. But I will add here that in this documentary on some of the worst crimes committed against women what does stand out is hope. The Pakistani Parliament and its passage of the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill of 2011, the presence of the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF), the Burns Centers and finally the empowerment of the victim, by the sentencing of a victimized woman’s husband to two life terms in this film makes the extreme difficulty of watching the disfigured faces no less painful (this documentary is not for those with a weak heart) but gives one hope. What have been captured so powerfully in this effort are both the horrible reality of acid attacks and the strength and resilience of the victims. Misogyny is not restricted to just one society or culture. Saving Face should be recommended viewing for people worldwide.

On Dr. Mohammad Ali Jawad, one can easily add that if there is someone whose optimism needs to be patented, he should be amongst those first in line. We enjoyed his unique delivery at this PACC event and hope that his attitude will become contagious and infect our diaspora along with the country of origin. People worldwide need more role models like him. What he has attempted in his work is to save our collective faces by turning the most horribly tragic of circumstances into some rays of hope.

(This scribe would like to thank Lotus Public Relations in Lahore, Curzon PR in London and the Aftab family of Saratoga, California for their assistance with this article).

Ras Hafiz Siddiqui is a South Asian American writer. He lives in Sacramento, Calif.


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