A man attempts to murder his own daughter. Can one imagine a more despicable, stomach-churning crime? Surely, everyone, in all parts of the world, can agree that this is a heinous act which deserves any society’s highest punishment. And yet, in many parts of Pakistan, men kill their own female family members—their nieces, sisters, daughters—for bringing “dishonor” on the family, usually by marrying a man of their choosing rather than the man their families have arranged for them.
One such woman, Saba—whose story is told in Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s emotionally devastating 40-minute film, “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness,” which just won Best Documentary Short at this year’s Academy Awards—was just 18 years old when she fell in love with Qaiser, a man from a slightly poorer family than her own. Against her father and uncle’s wishes, she eloped with him, and just hours after their wedding, Saba’s father and uncle kidnapped her, beat her, shot her in the face, and dump her body in the river, leaving her for dead. Saba miraculously survived, crawling out of the river and making her way to a nearby gas station. After undergoing extensive reconstructive surgery, Saba remains horribly scarred, forced to wear the memory of her own attempted murder on her face.
Having to endure such unspeakable horror from one’s own father is bad enough, but what makes Saba’s story so morally outrageous is that these crimes are valorized by the community. Saba is urged by community elders to forgive her father, a step which would allow him to evade murder charges. Saba’s father is the sole breadwinner of a large family, and keeping him in prison would deprive his family of any livelihood. And so, Saba faces an impossible choice: refuse forgiveness and deprive her family of support or forgive her father and watch her attempted murderer go free.
Ultimately, Saba’s father and uncle are not only not punished for their crimes, they are released from jail and welcomed back into the community in higher esteem. “I am more respected,” Saba’s father declares. “I am an honorable man.”
Watching Saba’s father speak so proudly, so callously, so unfeelingly of his monstrous crime, I was reminded of Joshua Oppenheimer’s brilliant documentary “The Act of Killing,” in which the perpetrators of horrific mass killings in Indonesia live freely as respected members of society. They are celebrated by their own government, which has not even begun to reckon with its own dark past. Both films powerfully underscore what happens when a nation implicitly endorses disgusting acts of violence. (And lest we think such impunity is solely the province of foreign nations, we should ask ourselves who has been held responsible for torture, illegal war, and the financial crisis.)
Though it tells a single woman’s story in just 40 minutes, “A Girl in the River” touches on so many important intersecting issues, from gender to religion to class to law. Obaid-Chinoy, who tells Saba’s story with a clear-eyed moral vision that never judges or simplifies, makes clear that honor killings are the product of a patriarchal system, not some inevitable consequence of Islam. These murders, in fact, seem to have little to do with the Koran and everything to do with a government, culture, and legal system that treat women as less than human. Saba’s resolve in the face of such oppression is inspiring and, in the end, heartbreaking. The story “A Girl in the River” tells is so depressing and infuriating that I’m thankful it runs only 40 minutes. If it were any longer, it might have been unbearable.