Saving faces one by one

Wellesley News

“It makes sense to me to do my share to balance out the inequality that seems to be taken for granted so often,” said award-winning film producer Fazeelat Aslam ’07 as she explained her desire to combine her advocacy work with film.Aslam’s work has won numerous distinctions over the years, including the Alfred I. Dupont Award and an International Emmy for the documentary “Children of the Taliban” in 2010.

Since then, Aslam has filmed and produced a number of documentaries, the most recent one being the Oscar-winning documentary “Saving Face.” Aslam has often emphasized the importance of advocacy work and the benefits she gained from going to Wellesley College. Recently, she has commented on her ongoing film project.

Growing up in both the developed and developing worlds increased Aslam’s awareness of social inequality from a young age, granting her a sense of responsibility in helping to eradicate it. “I’ve been working with women and children since the age of 16,” said Aslam. “And I also volunteered with NGOs for outreach programs for disenfranchised children and [did] a promotional documentary for mental health awareness for a facility in Hyderabad, Pakistan.”

“Saving Face,” Aslam’s most recent documentary, is about victims of acid attacks in Pakistan. According to Acid Survivors Trust International, at least 1500 people globally are attacked with acid each year, 80 percent of whom are female. The reasons behind the attacks range from seeking revenge for a refusal of sexual advances to revenge for a refusal to pay dowry.

“To me, domestic violence is reflective of an inequality that I see in my own country as well as every other country I’ve lived in and visited,” she said. Aslam commented on the fact that perpetrators of these atrocities rarely suffer the consequences of their actions. “I obviously feel very strongly about eliminating gendered and domestic violence, but also about the fact that [the violence] is not considered as serious of an issue as it should be.” “Saving Face” wasAslam’s way to tell the story of women whose experiences are often suppressed.

“Saving Face” has received numerous awards, the most prominent one being an Academy Award for Documentary Short last year. “I remember sitting in the theatre as the nominations were announced,” she said. “The entire team was whispering under their breaths, ‘Saving Face, Saving Face.’”

The film brought about many personal challenges for Aslam by exposing her to the deeply heart-wrenching stories women from her region had to tell. Aslam also faced an important challenge in deciding how to best share these stories with the world in an authentic way. “When the documentary’s name was announced, it was more than just an accolade for me as a filmmaker, it was an accomplishment for me as a Pakistani, and a feminist,” Aslam continued. “We had not only put Pakistan on the map, but we’d put it on the map for something I was really proud of.”

The success of “Saving Face” increased people’s trust in Aslam and in her filmmaking, inspiring them to believe in her ability to get the stories out into the world. “What the Oscar did… is that the news of the award reached even the most rural areas of the world,” said Aslam. “People living in earthquake-ravaged makeshift homes… were willing to tell [their story] because they trust[ed] us… That faith in the common good in humanity is one of the best things I’ve ever experienced in my life.”

Partly due to this realization, Aslam’s advocacy work has not wavered. She continues to work with many important causes, helping the doctors from “Saving Face” find patients and continuing to support people who are fighting to eliminate bonded labor and organ-trafficking in Pakistan. “I always had great respect for documentary filmmakers, but I initially thought I’d be directly involved in social work. Some filmmakers choose not to label themselves as activists… but while documentary filmmaking is certainly a passion of mine, I see it as a means to an end, a way to advocate for human rights and spread awareness about certain social issues,” Aslam said. “I will always consider myself an activist.”

Having graduated from Wellesley with a degree in Media Studies and Gender Studies, Aslam credits the development of her passion for social work to her Wellesley professors. “[They] changed me and my life in a way I can never thank them enough for…mold[ing] me into the best version of myself and giving me hope in the change that we’re all capable of,” Aslam said. She singled out Professors Sea-Ling Cheng and Geeta Patel as two “incredibly open-minded and gifted educators and mentors” who shaped her life’s direction.

Not only did Wellesley’s professors leave a lasting impression on the young filmmaker, the school’s single-sex environment was of paramount importance to her development. “I do think the dynamic that Wellesley creates strengthens us as women, if by no other reason than presenting a new environment of learning that a lot of us never experienced before.”

Aside from academics at Wellesley, Aslam remembers the luxury of wearing pajamas everyday. “I wore pajamas to class… I’m imagining a lot of my friends cringing right now because I may not have done so in a co-ed environment, but in all honesty, eliminating the deeply embedded pressures of being in a mixed-sex environment became very clear to me after being a student at Wellesley and now I am proud to say I happily wear my pajamas everywhere regardless of which gender is present.”

After the Oscars, Aslam returned to Pakistan in order to continue filming a series she has been working on about local heroes, titled “Ho Yaqeen.” The film will be available on YouTube in English after the series is released. Aslam hopes that people watching catch a glimmer of hope for a nation that is often cast in a negative light.

Filming the episodes of “Ho Yaqeen” was an educational experience for Aslam through its focus on local Pakistanis defying all odds to make a difference in their communities. When asked about how her series impacts viewers, Aslam said, “What I love most about being a documentary filmmaker is being able to put someone’s story and experiences together in a way that other people can understand it and relate to it, people who may think they have nothing in common with that person.”

Published 9/12/2012 in the Wellesley News

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