Oscar-winning documentary features plastic surgeon

By Sharmila DhalSenior Reporter Dubai

You could have been excused for not noticing the goodie boxes from a local confectionary stacked in a corner in Daril B. Atkins’ modest consulting room on February 28. But the unassuming Indian paramedic at Rashid Hospital had enough reason to celebrate: he had just catapulted himself, the hospital and Dubai into the Oscar spotlight.

“I created the facial prosthesis for Zakia,” he said, pointing to riveting pictures of the acid attack survivor of Saving Face, the Pakistani documentary that won the Oscar at the 84th Academy Awards. “I feel so happy, proud — and yes, embarrassed by all the attention.”

A US-certified clinical anaplastologist who helped set up Rashid Hospital’s 27-year-old anaplastology lab, Atkins said he was roped in by Dr Mohammad Jawad, the London-based British Pakistani plastic surgeon who performs reconstructive surgery on Pakistan’s acid burn victims in the award-winning film. Each year, over a 100 women are disfigured in acid attacks in Pakistan.

“My name was recommended to director Daniel Junge by the US-based International Anaplastology Association (IAA) with which I have been associated for 20 years,” he said.

“The IAA was instrumental in finding an anaplastologist (Daril Atkins, CCA) for a truly moving documentary about domestically abused Pakistani women. Not only was the short documentary nominated for an Oscar, it won last night,” said the IAA in a statement, a copy of which Atkins received.

“We have not seen the entire documentary and we do not know how much exposure Daril and the profession of anaplastology will receive,” the statement said, but added, “Daril was able to provide her [Zakia] with an improved quality of life in a country with some of the fewest resources.”

Cherishing another message by Dr Jawad, Atkins pointed to an e-mail by the renowned doctor which said, “I would like everybody to know and acknowledge that without your skill and dedication, this project was incomplete and faceless and you have saved the face for me… and hence the ‘saving face’.”

While Dr Jawad did the main reconstructive surgery, Atkins said he helped give Zakia’s face the “realism” it needed. She had been severely disfigured after her husband allegedly threw acid on her face after she had filed for divorce. It was almost as if half her face was wiped out. What was left was one eye, half a nose and a mouth that couldn’t smile.

An anaplastologist specialising in medical sculptures, Atkins’ task was to create a facial prosthetic device that would cover the damaged portion of Zakia’s face and make it life-like in size, colour, shape and texture.

But it was not easy.

He had to travel to Pakistan for the job and getting a visa as an Indian required intervention at the highest levels. “Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, co-director of the film, contacted people at the highest diplomatic levels to facilitate my eight-day visit to Islamabad during Ramadan last year,” Atkins said.

Rebuilding a life

It took him seven days to rebuild Zakia’s face at a private dental lab in Pakistan. Unlike regular prostheses where silicon polymers are used, Atkins said he went in for acrylic to create a life-like device for Zakia as it was easier to fabricate, maintain and repair.

“Considering that the patient was from a modest background and there were no anaplastology labs in Pakistan, the material I chose was acrylic. It was necessary to consider the prosthesis as interim since additional reconstructive procedures were planned for the future. Acrylic also ruled out the need for any adhesives and could possibly be repaired by any dental lab in Pakistan if needed,” said Atkins. Once the prototype was completed, the rest was a technical moulding, casting process to arrive at the final product which could just fall into place on Zakia’s face. It was held by a pair of spectacles and like the spectacles itself, could be taken off and put back whenever she wanted.

Atkins said his trip to Pakistan could have a bigger impact as it underlined the need for such laboratories to create useful and culturally appropriate prostheses.

He said he undertook the task as part of the Probono charity initiative, even as a former colleague at Rashid Hospital, Ashwaq Hassan, sponsored his trip and the cost of Zakia’s prosthesis which came to around Dh10,000. “It’s a great feeling when others share your joy,” said Atkins, who has been flooded with congratulatory messages from his colleagues, friends and family. He lives in Dubai with his wife and has a son and a daughter who are settled in Australia.

The documentary Saving Face is a story of hope and follows a British-Pakistani surgeon Dr Mohammad Jawad as he travels into the rural pockets of Pakistan to treat survivors of acid violence like Zakia whose husband allegedly threw acid on her outside a court after she filed for divorce. The film, directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Daniel Junge, competed with four other films at the 84th Annual Academy Awards on February 26. When it won the Oscar, Chinoy dedicated the award to the women of Pakistan.

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