Channel 4 True Stories – Saving Faces, Saving Lives – review

by Lisa McGarry

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“I was 13. My school teacher wanted to be with me. I said no. So he threw acid on me”.

Every year in Pakistan, more than a hundred people are known victims of acid attacks, while unsurprisingly, numerous other cases remain unreported for fear of recriminations. With no access to reconstructive surgery, survivors are left increasingly disfigured and in pain as the scar tissue continues to tighten across the face, whilst their torment is further compounded as many victims are left ostracised from their own families and communities because of their burns.

Part of Channel 4’s True Stories series, Saving Face is an Oscar-winning film which follows plastic surgeon Mohammad Jawad, who gained notoriety when undertaking pioneering surgery on British acid attack victim Katie Piper. Normally jostling, jovial, jokey and just a tad immodest (“I’m a damn good breast surgeon!”), he is soon lost for words, finding the experience of listening to the victims’ testimonies both confronting and angering: “I’m part of the society that has this disease.”

He travels to his home country to reconstruct the faces of two women, 39-year-old Zakia and 23-year-old Rukhsana, but the true focus of the film falls not merely on reconstructing the self physically but emotionally too.

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In the kitchen of her in-laws’ house, Rukhsana flatly gestures towards the stone floor. “This is where they burned me alive.” Her husband threw acid on her, her sister-in-law threw petrol, then her mother-in-law set her alight. When she was forced to move back in fearing for her child, they seized her daughter and held her behind a bricked- up wall with them, so Rukhsana could not see her. She asks how on earth she can go on now.

Whilst Piper’s attackers were sentenced to three life sentences between them, Rukhsana’s attackers walked free to live their lives, whilst she is left ‘scared to live’ hers. One attack from the perpetrators, one attack from the justice system, another from the community: the scope of the film expands to show the sense of a threefold victimhood, the effects of which extend beyond the sufferer themselves.

After Zakia confesses that her own brother does not like anybody to see her face as he finds her appearance shameful, her young daughter laments that, ‘rather than help us with our grief, people insult us.’

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The most shocking element of Saving Faces is not seeing Zakia’s half-dissolved face after her husband threw battery acid at her, but seeing women who are hurt by those they trust most and by the very people who are meant to offer protection. Most women have nowhere left to turn, but back to their abusers. Such horrific assaults are the by-product of the attitudes of a wider society where crimes are perpetrated by women against women in the very name of oppressing women, as the film deals not only with the physical act of saving the women’s faces, but exposes the need to ‘save face’ in the community too.

Zakia’s abusive husband accuses her of being an adulterer as if to justify his attack. Rukhsana’s husband appears before the camera, smirking complacently when asked about her attack. “No I’ve never abused her.” He says, without conviction – in both senses of the word. “One day she just lost her mind and threw petrol on herself.” When asked why a woman would then throw acid on herself, he offers: “visit the acid unit, 99% of them burned themselves alive.” The victims are discredited further as crazy.

Zakia’s father-in law shrugs with dismissive inevitability. “This was bound to happen anyway”, he says of her attack. She is again accused of infidelity for good measure. The cycle of disgrace continues.

Yet, Rukhsana and Zakia’s resolve and quiet stoicism are the most humbling aspects of this incredibly moving film. Zakia, along with the support of the Acid Survivors Foundation, vows to bring her husband to justice, whatever threats he may level at her. Meanwhile Rukhsana, as she is about to have her face reconstructed, finds out at the physical exam she is pregnant. She wishes for a boy – so that she doesn’t have to watch a daughter go through a difficult marriage like hers. She gets her wish, a boy, whom she names Mohammad – so he can grow up to be a doctor and a good man – not like his father. These women are daring to break the cycle.

At this point in the film, as we see the women’s faces starting to change, they cast off the scars of ownership with which the men branded them because “if they can’t have them, nobody will.” And now, as they move onto a new life after their attack, in the cruellest of ironies, nobody does own them anymore. Their lives are theirs to start to mend.

As their faces improve, so does their inner courage, as co-director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy gives us a film that stares so long and hard into despair that it manages to draw a sense of optimism, beautiful in its fragility, from the very worst of situations.

We watch Zakia walking through the marketplace in her town, as her attacker Pervez is jailed for life. She modestly reflects that now, “tomorrow is much better than today.”