When Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Daniel Junge won the Oscar in March for their short documentary Saving Face, about the victims of acid attacks in Pakistan, the entire nation erupted in joy. Obaid-Chinoy was hailed as a “daughter of the nation” (a phrase which makes me cringe with its chauvinistic, nationalist overtones) and suddenly everyone wanted a piece of her glory. “How do you know Sharmeen?” became the question of the day and it seemed that everybody had some tale of being best friends with her since childhood.
Fair enough, that’s part of being an international celebrity — the sycophancy, the obsequiousness, the hangers-on — and any person who’s properly grounded will know better than to let it sway her too much. But there’s a darker side of success: some will attempt to gain financially by their connection to the celebrity, especially if large sums of money are involved in that success. And that’s exactly what’s happened now, with one of the women featured in the documentary, Rukhsana, claiming that Obaid-Chinoy promised her three million rupees and a house, but never delivered.
For those of you who haven’t seen the documentary, Rukhsana was the woman who had acid thrown on her face by her husband, but instead of leaving him like Zakia did, Rukhsana stayed with both him and his family because they told her that if she walked out, she’d never see her young daughter again. Rukhsana also had to postpone her surgery with Dr Mohammed Jawad because she fell pregnant and the doctor told her it was unsafe to carry on with their plans to rebuild her face in those circumstances. Although the doctor returned to Pakistan in April of this year and offered to perform the surgery on her at this time, she refused for reasons which are unclear.
At the time of filming, Rukhsana signed a consent form to appear in the documentary, but it’s obvious that she and her husband’s family were expecting that there would be financial benefits to the participation. However, documentary subjects are usually not paid for their appearing in these films. Obaid-Chinoy says that a donor promised to buy Rukhsana a house, but that Rukhsana’s family viewed some houses and then refused to buy any, hoping to hold out for more money instead. Since then, she has gone to the media with her allegations against Obaid-Chinoy and says she will sue the film-maker for compensation.
Obaid-Chinoy had promised that any profits from airing the documentary in Pakistan would go to the victims of acid throwing featured in the movie and to the Acid Survivors Foundation (ASF). But Rukhsana and the ASF filed a civil suit, which stopped the airing of the movie in the country, citing concerns for their safety, with which Obaid-Chinoy duly obliged. Yet, Obaid-Chinoy stands firm that no wrongdoing has occurred in her dealings with Rukhsana. “In my 11 years as a documentary maker, 16 films across 10 countries, this has never happened before,” she said in a series of tweets on social media site Twitter. “She has been coerced into this by her family. She needs psychological and medical help.”
What’s astonishing is that with this latest controversy, Obaid-Chinoy is now being attacked by people on both the right and left wing of the political spectrum. Abdul Nishapuri of the Let Us Build Pakistan website that raises awareness about the killings of Shias and Baloch minorities, says rather ridiculously that the controversy “highlights the selective morality and urban elitist bias of the Pakistani elite”. Equally ridiculously, conservatives are blaming Obaid-Chinoy for making Pakistan “look bad” in the eyes of the world. But Haroon Riaz, another blogger and amateur photographer, perhaps, describes it best when he says, “The fact that Chinoy won the Oscar will always hurt the wounded pride of acid-throwing Pakistani males”.
What’s important to remember, in the end, is that the very man who threw acid on Rukhsana’s face is now demanding money from Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy; this boils down to him wanting financial compensation for having disfigured his own wife. I can’t help being reminded of the countless beggar children on the streets of Karachi with their limbs twisted and amputated, hands stretched out for money day after day between the lines of traffic. The people who send them out to beg know that there’s more money in remaining a victim than becoming a survivor. If being embroiled in this kind of diabolical business is the price of fame, I certainly don’t envy Obaid-Chinoy or her Oscar one bit. Do you?
Published in The Express Tribune, June 30th, 2012.