Pakistani filmmaker keen to make film on cross-border social issues

New Delhi: Around 150 acid attacks on women take place in Pakistan every year, says Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, who won an Oscar for portraying the trauma, helplessness and struggles of women disfigured by such violence in her country. The journalist-turned-filmmaker from Karachi is now keen to make a short film on the mutual concerns that Pakistan and India share on social issues.

"India and Pakistan are plagued by the same (social) issues. I would love to make a film highlighting their mutual concerns, documenting the perspectives of both the countries. Hope that it will materialise," Sharmeen told IANS in an e-mail interview.

Sharmeen, 33, won the Oscar for her 42-minute documentary `Saving Face`. The film, the first from Pakistan to win an Oscar, captures the emotions of two acid-attack survivors -- Zakia, 39, and Rukhsana, 23.

As many as 150 acid attacks take place in Pakistan every year, but only three incidents are reported, said Sharmeen.

She decided to direct the film as she felt "strongly about creating awareness about the issue."

"I took this subject as it is very sensitive. I strongly felt there was a need to create awareness on the issue. Survivors like Zakia and Rukhsana are not only left with physical scars; their families often opted to lock them up for the rest of their lives to hide their injuries.

"Trauma, disfigurement and ostracism are not nearly an exhaustive list of these consequences," Sharmeen said.

"It was not until I spent time with my subjects, researching for the film, that I realised how far-reaching and severe the consequences of each attack are," she said.

Zakia had acid flung on her by her husband and is now fighting for a divorce, while Rukhsana, who faced a similar attack by her husband and in-laws, has been forced to return to them.

Sharmeen, who started her career as an investigative journalist, said the documentary was aimed at highlighting the menace of acid violence - which is gradually becoming a major crime against women in South Asia.

Pakistan had last year passed the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill, under which an attacker faces a prison sentence of 14 years to life, besides a Rs.1 million fine (&pound7,000; $12,000).

In Pakistan, most acid attacks are reported in the Saraiki belt of southern Punjab, one of the largest cotton-growing regions in that country, said Sharmeen.

"Acid is used to process cotton and readily available in Saraiki. This area is also beleaguered with low literacy, high unemployment levels and an arid climate. The lethal combination of frustration, backward mindset and readily-available industrial acid has led to the current state of violence," the filmmaker said.

"Saving Face", which has been telecast on HBO in the US and Channel 4 in the UK, was screened in India but not telecast by any television channels yet. "It will not be aired in Pakistan. The subjects of the film (Zakia and Rukhsana) requested us not to telecast it."

Many cases of acid attacks are reported in India too.

"Though the Pakistani parliament has taken steps to curb acid violence by criminalising the menace, we still have a long way to go. In India, there is currently no legislation in place to regulate the availability of acid or punish perpetrators of the acid violence," observed Sharmeen.

However, Bangladesh has effectively managed to lower the number of acid-related crimes, she said.

In 2002, Bangladesh passed laws regulating the availability of acid and other corrosive substances, besides prescribing stringent punishment for the perpetrators of acid attacks.

"The laws reduced the number of victims by more than half (in Bangladesh) and Pakistan must work towards mirroring their efforts."

India does not have a separate section under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to deal with acid attacks. It is clubbed with other crimes.

Sharmeen has made 16 films in 11 countries over the past decade.

"I launched my production house, SOC Films, in Karachi late last year. We are currently producing and airing a documentary series titled `Ho Yaqeen`, which highlights the heroes working on the ground in Pakistan. We are also working on a socially motivated animated series geared towards Pakistani children."

Sharmeen has also won an Emmy for her documentary `Pakistan: Children of the Taliban` in 2010.