My Brush with Greatness

Ellen Padnos
Ellen Padnos

I sat glued to the screen for forty minutes as I viewed Saving Face, the Oscar-winning HBO documentary that premiers tonight on HBO. The story follows two Pakistani women, Zakia and Rukhsana, whose faces have been disfigured and severely burned because of acid attacks by their husbands. It’s hard to watch a story about women who have been tortured, are permanently scarred and have extreme mental and physical pain. Yet, amidst the evil of the attacks, Saving Face manages to highlight the beauty of the human spirit: We meet a hero, Dr. Mohammad Jawad, a successful London-based plastic surgeon, who flies to his native Pakistan to help reconstruct faces of women who have been burned; Kindness is seen in a support group where these desperately sad women come and find laughter and camaraderie; and, Lastly, the Pakistani Parliament shows it’s heart by unanimously passing legislation to put away these offenders for life.

The story is perfectly woven together. You will learn, be deeply touched and be inspired to make a difference in the world.

Sharmeen Obaid-ChinoyI had the honor of chatting with documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. She, along with her co-director, Daniel Junge, won this year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary Short, Saving Face.

We discussed feminism, motherhood, justice, law enforcement, making a difference and, of course, the Oscars!

In the US, the Oscars is a night about the dresses, the parties, and the sparkly jewels – basically all superficial. You were there representing a film about acid-burn victims, pain and injustice basically, the complete antithesis of all this glitz and glamour. Was it at all odd for you?

It was incredible to be at this event and being able to address millions of people about change in Pakistan. It really was an enlightening experience for me. Despite the glitz and glamour, there were so many celebrities, especially women, who were interested in the film. These are real issues and these people are interested. We’ve had requests from several celebrities to receive the film.

I read that you consider Pakistan to be is “your most important audience.” How will your audience in Pakistan receive this film?

Acid attacks take place in many countries in Asia, and all over the world. This film profiles attacks in Pakistan because that is my native country. It’s an issue we can tackle; we can change things on the ground for these women. Legislation has come into play. We can push for enforcement. We are the first Pakistanis to win an Oscar so people are sitting up and taking notice. People want to be able to do something – we have attention and momentum. We are launching an educational outreach program on the ground in Pakistan. We are very proud, launching public service announcements both on radio and TV as well as pamphlets and snippets of the film will be showed to people in areas where acid burning is prevalent. Working with partners on the ground Acid Survivors. It’s been incredible, since the Oscars, so many surgeons and people have written to help and offer their services!

I know in many third world countries, it’s hard to enforce legislation, especially in the more tribal areas. Legislation has been passed to put offenders in jail for life. Is this legislation going to be tough to enforce?

In all developing countries, and I’ve worked in many of them, there are so many laws and they are seldom implemented. But in Pakistan with this particular law, we are hoping that this does get implemented. There is no better way to insure this than winning an Oscar. It’s gained so much traction and people are talking about it.

Is it because winning an Oscar gives credibility, therefore it would be embarrassing if it was not enforced?

Absolutely, and also, now there is so much awareness about the issue. Everyone is pretty horrified about. It’s one thing to pick up the newspaper and read about it. But creating a film, seeing the visual image of these women – the before, and after, — it makes it more real. This is a man-made problem and it can be fixed.

You’re a prolific filmmaker – you’ve made numerous documentaries and have another in development – and you’re also a mother. I know you also want to follow up on the humanitarian issues you uncover. For example, you’ve talked about how dedicated you are to protecting Zakia and Rukhsana. How do you do it all?

Twenty-four hours in a day are not enough! I have to say there is no way I could do it alone. I have an amazing support system: my mother, sisters, husband, mother-in-law and I have a fantastic assistant. Working women cannot do it alone. There is no way to do it alone. If you try to go alone you will lose steam. I can’t do everything but I can choose what I want to do and can work with my family to get it done.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

I am a HUGE Feminist. I’m a Smithy (a nickname for women who attended Smith College in Massachusetts). Going to Smith automatically translates into being a feminist. In the context of Pakistan, yes, I am a feminist. That’s because I advocate women’s rights and speak out for women. I’m always pushing for greater representation of women. Those are things people take for granted in North America. In the context of the US, I’m probably not seen as much as a feminist. The definition of feminist changes depending on the country and context you are speaking about.

What would you say to everyday women, who want to make a difference but are daunted by life and the daily responsibilities they have?

Each one of us can change something about the world. It doesn’t have to be on a global level. Start an hour a week at a neighborhood level. You can coach. You can be a mentor. There are so many ways one can help; it depends on what their interests are. If someone wants to make a difference, I refuse to believe that they cannot do so. Anyone can make a difference can be made by looking at your immediate surrounding environment. If each of us started doing that that, can you imagine what the world would look like!

What was your most fun or memorable moment at the Oscars?

It was the most incredible thing: I stood next to Melissa McCarthy, who presented the award for our category, just three weeks before at the nominee’s lunch. When she went up to present the award I thought it was serendipitous! And then when they called my name, I wasn’t sure if I had said my name in my head or if it was really said. Then I saw Daniel running so I followed!

[ Also see: Oscar Winner Saving Face – An Important Film for Women’s Rights ]

It was absolutely an incredible honor to speak with Sharmeen. In our 15-minute chat, I noticed her voice became animated and passionate at two particular times: First, when she talked about the changes occurring on the ground in Pakistan as a result of Saving Face, and then again when she talked about how every woman could help – even if it was volunteering an hour a week to tutor a child. She is a woman who makes intentional choices every day to make the world a better place. We are lucky to have her as a global citizen and an inspiration!

Watch “Saving Face” Thursday, March 8 (8:30-9:15 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO. And for more information on Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy Films, please visit:

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Ellen Padnos lives in Manhattan Beach, CA with her husband, Ben, her children Anthony (5), and Annie (19 months), and her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Lola. You can also follow her on Twitter (@ellenpadnos).

1 Comment

  1. Sharmeen reminds us that great deeds need not be large, dramatic and global. Women can create a woven fabric with small acts of giving and kindness. That fabric is by its very nature colorful, varied and strong. Sharmeen is a marvel of courage, insight, persistence and love. We are all better by having this citizen of the world. Thank you for your your probing interview.

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