"Where are the stars?"
Riffat Masood, the consul general of the Pakistani Consulate in Los Angeles, has hushed the crowd gathered in the living room of her palatial home in Beverly Hills. Now she just needs to find the guests of honor. "Where is the director? Where is the famous doctor?"
As the two make their way to her side, Masood explains what an honor it is to have them here this evening, the Friday before Oscar night. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is co-director and co-producer of Saving Face, the first Pakistani film ever to be nominated for an Academy Award. The documentary explores the horrific acid attacks that disfigure hundreds of women in Pakistani villages each year, and its star is Dr. Mohammad Jawad, the plastic surgeon who labors to restore the victims to normalcy.
Diplomat that she is, Masood stresses the progress. She knows that airing her nation's dirty laundry might be controversial in some circles -- people tell her that "The film shows a part of Pakistan we should not talk about."
But, she says, "I look at it another way." To her, Saving Face shows that Pakistan is refusing to tolerate such violence against its women. Parliament has even decreed that anyone found guilty of an acid attack will be sentenced to life in prison.
Dr. Jawad is not a diplomat. He tells the assembled crowd that the perpetrators "need an ass-kicking." He then tells Masood, "I hope you give a strong message that your government will eliminate this man-made problem in the next five years."
"There's a growing awareness now," she says firmly, "and that's a step forward."
"Awareness is great," he says dismissively. But true progress depends on the law -- and, he adds pointedly, "enforcement of all the laws." The crowd, which is composed both of prominent Pakistani expats and the film crew, claps politely.
For all the surgeries he's performed in Pakistan, London-based Jawad would not be in Beverly Hills for Oscar week if not for an English rose named Katie Piper. The aspiring model's ex-boyfriend paid a thug to throw sulphuric acid in her face, severely disfiguring her. The voyeuristic horror of seeing her ravaged face -- and the 60 surgeries she subsequently endured -- made Piper a tabloid heroine in Great Britain.
Listening to a BBC report on Piper, Denver-based filmmaker Daniel Junge noticed her plastic surgeon's Pakistani name. On a whim, he telephoned that surgeon, Jawad, to ask what he knew about the acid attacks against girls in his native land. While Piper's case is a rarity in Britain, 150 or so such attacks are recorded annually in Pakistan. Like Piper, the women often are disfigured by men they know -- men who are angry at their rejection.
When Junge learned that Jawad had been regularly flying to Pakistan to perform surgeries, he knew he had his next film. He soon enlisted Obaid-Chinoy, who lives in Pakistan, to be his co-director.
"It became very apparent that I needed a partner on the ground," he says, "and all the better if she was female." With Obaid-Chinoy asking the questions, the victims started to talk.
An early cut of the film opened with Piper. But Junge and Obaid-Chinoy ultimately realized they didn't need a blonde to capture their audience: The 40-minute film now focuses solely on Pakistan.
Consul General Masood has pitched this evening at her home as a "totally casual" dinner party to celebrate the film, but nothing is casual about the elaborate buffet with its heavy china or the tables arrayed just so around the swimming pool. The women dazzle in jewel-colored tunics, trimmed in gold or silver and paired with stilettos; the men wear suits. "Pakistan came out of the British system," one man laughs to an American guest. "We are not casual."
Obaid-Chinoy wears a sleeveless burgundy tunic over slim-cut pants. Two nights later, when Saving Face wins the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short, she will wear another traditional Pakistani outfit, this one in ecru -- and she will look both serious and beautiful as she dedicates her Oscar to "all the women in Pakistan working for change.
"Don't give up on your dream," she will say, looking far too serene to have just become the first person from her country, ever, to win an Academy Award. "This is for you."
On Friday, though, the 33-year-old Obaid-Chinoy is warm, almost bubbly. Greeting an endless succession of admirers, she can't stop smiling.
Born and raised in Karachi, she was educated at Smith College and Stanford University. She returned home and became that very unusual thing: a Pakistani filmmaker.
"People are behind the message of this film: that this is a problem that exists in Pakistan, and that people are tackling it," she says.
Even though such violence seems worlds away from this glittering celebration, the film's subject is never far from the conversation.
Jawad's college roommate, Dr. Kamran Qureshi, is today an internist in Southern California. Over dinner, he recalls that, even as a boy, Jawad was "very flamboyant and naughty." His work with victims has brought out a more serious side.
"The last five years, he's been pushing every one of us to give back to our country," Qureshi says. "He's been very pushy at times."
Gunnard Doboze, the film's composer, tells Qureshi that he slipped into a theater in Santa Monica the night before to watch Saving Face. Even after seeing it 50 times, he found himself tearing up.
And he couldn't help but watch the audience as it absorbed the damage.
When the first woman pulls off her veil and reveals her ruined face, Doboze says, "You just hear the gasp."Follow me on Twitter at @sarahfenske, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.