“Cinema for Change” – Addressing Violence Against Women


The South Asian Film Education Society (S.A.F.E.S.) hosted its first “Cinema for Change” film festival from April 19 to April 21, 2013. The theme: “Addressing Violence Against Women.”

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Guest Filmmaker, Samar Minallah, appeared at the opening night by Skype from Pakistan. Her documentary, “Swara: A Bridge Over Troubled Water,” looked at “swara,” the practice of using unmarried girls as compensation to settle disputes between families.  The practice of “swara” in the film of the same name, typically takes place as follows. One man kills another man and the family of the man who has been killed wants compensation from the murderer. The compensation takes the form of a girl, transferred from the family of the murderer to the family who would otherwise seek revenge. The girl is then expected to live in the “other” family as a daughter-in-law.

The practice of “swara” is well-known in North-West Pakistan and in other tribal communities and stopping it, Minallah admits, can be dangerous. The murderer (whose family pays the girl as compensation) is “let off the hook;” stopping that compensation would mean that the murderer must otherwise pay for his crime which, Minallah notes he will typically go to any lengths to avoid. Although Minallah acknowledges the challenges in fighting “swara,” she has helped bring awareness of the issue to the public and to policymakers through short public service-announcements. She also works to sensitive the police to the problem after the practice was made illegal through legislation passed in 2004. A growing number cases of “swara” moreover are being reported and addressed through public interest-litigation (200 cases were reported in 2011).


Saturday, April 20, 2013

The second day saw the screening of “Common Gender” (2012), a Bangladeshi activist-documentary on the life of the hijra (intersexual) community of Dhaka and the violence underlying the social process of gendering. The two other films were “Afghanistan Unveiled” (2007) and “Provoked” (2006).

The film “Provoked,” is based on the true story of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, a Punjabi woman in the United Kingdom who was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of her husband in 1989. Her conviction was set aside in 1992, partly through the help of the women’s advocacy and outreach group, Southhall Black Sisters. The judge noted that because of years of  abuse, Kiranjit suffered severe depression and battered women syndrome; her mental responsibility for the act was thus “diminished.” She had also been “provoked,” but was unable to retaliate right away because of her mental state. Her case (R v. Ahluwalia) changed English law, leading to the setting aside of convictions for battered women in 1992 and thereafter.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

In “Saving Face,” we hear the stories of two survivors of acid attacks in Pakistan, Zakia and Rukshana. While highlighting the brutality of the attacks and their affect on the women, we see how the problem is being fought through cooperation between reconstructive surgeons, policymakers, lawyers, the media and NGO’s is key in bringing perpetrators to justice and helping women rebuild their lives.

In “Bol” (2012) Meghna Halder presents a short-film in three parts through masks, puppetry and shadows. Whereas the “The Cyclist” looks at the facelessness of the Indian Muslim woman who died in a bomb blast in Bangalore, “The Rape” looks at how two women went missing in Kashmir and were presumed to have been raped and disposed of by the Indian Army. In “The Mask,” Meghna presents the story of a man who wakes one day to find his face has been stolen. All three films were layered with meanings, teasing one’s interpretations.

While the issue of violence against women is ongoing and oftentimes distressing, I admire the filmmakers’ use of film as a medium for raising social awareness of the problem. In Minallah, we saw an example of the activist film-maker who has continued to make films despite risk to herself. In three films, we saw how individual and community activism can bring about social change such as the passage of law against “swara” and acid-attacks in Pakistan or the precedent-setting case of Kiranjit Ahluwalia in the United Kingdom. While the struggle continues, the SAFES has hopefully played its own part in presenting “cinema for change.”

For a list of all films shown and descriptions, go to: http://southasianfilm.blogspot.ca/

‘Face saving needed for Saving Face’ by Syed Mohammad Ali

Pakistan’s mock Oscar draws some scowls in Pakistan and abroad. This comes soon after the sham glory that the US Empire tried to confer on a country it’s ravaging with all possible weapons of political, economic, social and military coercion. Coercion is unbearable in all its forms but it appears worse when applied to the various fields of art and journalistic media. This NATO-ized Oscar is perhaps the most untimely award in the history of awards. Uddari. 

It was upsetting to note recent media reports pointing out how some of the acid attack survivors portrayed in the Oscar winning movie, Saving face, have been compelled to seek legal assistance to prevent the director of the movie from releasing it for viewing in Pakistan.

Having done research for the same NGO which facilitated Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy in making her documentary — including firsthand meetings with many acid attack survivors, as well as with some of the perpetrators of such attacks, and visits to communities within which such heinous incidents had occurred — one does appreciate the nuances behind this seemingly strange turn of events.

I certainly do not begrudge Ms Obaid-Chinoy or her Oscar. Her accomplishment, in fact, has instilled a sense of pride among Pakistanis around the world. I also do not think that shedding light on a disturbing phenomenon, which continues to afflict tragedy and suffering in the lives of many people in our country, should be avoided out of fear that it will reinforce Western stereotypes. Even the fact that the US was quick to hand out an Oscar for a movie highlighting gender violence and thereafter denied granting a visa to another Pakistani documentary maker who chose to focus on the human cost of drone strikes, is more of a problem for US analysts and concerned citizens to contend with or to challenge. It is the ethical dimension surrounding the screening of Saving face documentary within Pakistan, however, which has evoked a personal sense of distress in me.

On the one hand, I realise the need to not only create awareness, but to take practical steps to prevent acid attacks in Pakistan. It is great to see Ms Obaid-Chinoy becoming very proactive on this issue subsequent to the Oscar win and the honours conferred on her by our government. However, she must stop insisting on screening the documentary within Pakistan if these survivors feel that they could be at risk of a backlash when and if the released film is seen by people they know. Given that the movie itself acknowledges the complex realities that these acid survivors must contend with, Ms Obaid-Chinoy must respect the wishes of these survivors, even if she had obtained some form of consent from them regarding its release. After all, the survivors featured in the documentary have not exactly signed acting contracts.

The NGO which initially provided access to the acid attack survivors — it prefers to use the term ‘survivor’ instead of ‘victim’ in order to infuse a sense of empowerment amongst people trying to recover and rehabilitate subsequent to acid attacks — is now trying to help them by providing assistance in going to court if required, to stop the documentary maker from showing the movie in Pakistan.

I have not had a chance to speak with Ms Obaid-Chinoy directly on this issue, so I do not know her side of the story. But whatever her perspective is, surely the need to protect the very people who have propelled her to international fame and glory must take precedence over any further publicity of her work. Moreover, there are several other ways to help create awareness on this issue, as well as countering the prevalence of acid attacks. Ongoing advocacy by those working on this issue have identified many practical means which merit further attention, ranging from curbing unregulated sale of concentrated acid to the need for demanding effective implementation of the new legislation that provides for the prosecution of acid attack perpetrators and to simultaneously paying greater attention to help survivors cope with recovery and rehabilitation. It is these unaddressed areas that Ms Obaid-Chinoy must offer greater attention on, rather than trying to insist upon screening her already awarded documentary in Pakistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 2nd, 2012. 


The writer is a development consultant and a PhD student at the University of Melbourne syed.ali@tribune.com.pk

Article pointed to by Shahid Mirza.

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