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Oscar-winning HBO documentary faces some hard facts

Ellen Gray
Philadelphia Daily News (MCT)

The Oscars, believe it or not, aren’t all about Angelina Jolie’s leg.

Or J. Lo’s alleged nip slip.

Amid the glitter and gossip, the Academy Awards also bring a billion people’s attention, however briefly, to work most of us might never hear about, including “Saving Face,” this year’s winner for best documentary short, which comes to HBO Thursday.

Working with her American co-director Daniel Yunge, filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy — the first person from Pakistan to win an Oscar — tells a story about a plastic surgeon working far from the red carpet to restore the faces of the victims of acid attacks.

I know. You’re wincing already.

There’s plenty to wince about in this film about a form of abuse in which women — or even very young girls — are disfigured by their husbands, rejected suitors, in-laws or sexual predators.

Even Dr. Mohammad Jawad, a surgeon who does breasts in London but travels back to his native Pakistan to work with burn victims at a government clinic, seems to have trouble at times.

Not just with the looking, but the listening.

“It bothers me a lot,” says Jawad, whose patients include a woman whose husband tossed acid on her while her sister-in-law threw gasoline, after which her mother-in-law set her on fire. She still lives with her husband and his family because her children became sick and she couldn’t afford to care for them any other way.

“I’m trying not to be angry,” Jawad says. “I don’t want to hear these stories anymore.”

It’s hard not to be angry, particularly when the filmmakers turn to the abusers, whose blanket denials aren’t exactly convincing.

The husband of the woman set on fire blames her “high blood pressure” and bad temper for leading her to pour gasoline over herself while standing too close to a candle. Those other women in the burn clinic? Ninety-nine percent, he says, “have burned themselves alive.”

The good news about “Saving Face” is that there IS some good news. Progress occurs on the legal level and on the medical one. A woman who begins with half a face achieves something that not only allows her to smile but gives her reason to.

Along the way, viewers’ eyes recalibrate to see hope amid the horror. Maybe you won’t want to freeze-frame on this one the way you might have on Jennifer Lopez, but there’s a harder-earned beauty here.

And courage is always the ultimate accessory.

Bottom line: Difficult to watch but ultimately uplifting.

Pass, watch in real time or DVR?: If your Thursday routine involves sitcoms, procedurals or “American Idol,” DVR for a time when you’re ready for a reality check.



8:30 p.m. EST Thursday


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