When beauty collides with atrocity: Documenting acid violence through film

Lys Anzia with documentary filmmaker Izabella Demavlys – WNN Interviews

Acid survivor Patricia LaFranc
Belgian acid survivor Patricia LaFranc lies waiting for one of her 100 reconstructive surgeries. Image: Izabella Demavlys

(WNN) Brussels, BELGIUM, WESTERN EUROPE: Two years ago photographer and documentary filmmaker Izabella Demavlys began work on a true story that will impact you for the rest of your life. This film is dedicated to ‘opening our eyes and hearts’ to a healing process that may seem impossible, but doable.

Covering the searing experience and suffering women around the world face each day, after they’ve been subjected to acid violence, this film isn’t just about suffering. It’s about courage. Demavlys’ first documentary film, named “Eternal Flame,” follows one special acid survivor, along with others, who courageously opens up her private life to the public after she has been subjected to one of the most brutal acid attacks in Europe.

At the age of 48, after ending all hopes for a relationship, Patricia faced the retaliation of the ‘married’ Richard Remes who turned against her by disfiguring her body and face using a heavy dose of sulphuric acid. From that moment on Patricia LaFranc’s life would never be the same again.

During the attack Remes sprayed Patricia so heavily that her skin was still showing new damage two years after the attack. LaFranc also lost a finger, her sight in one eye and her hearing in one of her ears during the acid attack.

After over 100 reconstructive surgeries Patricia now maps the ongoing ‘redo’ she never conceived she would ever have to make. It is through this process that she has learned that true beauty is more than just something ‘external’. It is a deeply internal process.

True inner beauty is the undercurrent of what this film is all about, outlines filmmaker Izabella Demavlys.

In a recent WNN – Women News Network interview with Demavlys, Izabella shares with WNN founder Lys Anzia how creating a documentary film like this can bring a better understanding into the extent this kind of violence can impact a woman. As an active global advocate for women who are facing acid violence every day in greater and greater numbers Demavlys is working today for a better world.

“This is a film not only about violence against women but about the great perseverance and courage of women. The story documents the full spectrum of what we, as humans, are capable of. From the depths of our most vile failings, to the pinnacle of what we can achieve in our darkest hour. Especially our darkest hour,” said Demavlys online as she describes what her new film means to her and the world.

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Lys Anzia for WNN – Women News Network: Can you share some of your own history with us as a woman’s advocate, a photographer and as a filmmaker Izabella?

Izabella Demavlys:

I actually started out as a fashion photographer.

This is my first film.

Ten years ago I would not have dreamed of working as a documentary photographer or filmmaker as I was all consumed with the fashion world in NYC.

It wasn’t until I left for Pakistan 2009 and met with the acid burn survivors there that my interests shifted towards working with women and women’s rights issues. I felt that my work could finally make an impact and change perspectives rather than just selling clothes.

 

WNN: As a woman have you found that your gender has helped or hurt you within the realm of your film-work?

Demavlys:

When it comes to traveling and working in certain places in the world, I have definitely felt discriminated against and not taken seriously just because I am a woman.

On the other hand I have been given access to working with women because of my gender in places men cannot enter.

With a different kind of beauty, acid survivor Patricia LaFranc shows her injuries.
With a now different kind of beauty, acid survivor Patricia LaFranc shows the deep injuries she received in the attack made against her in Brussels, Belgium 2009. Image: Izabella Demavlys

WNN: We understand your upcoming film is planned to make a powerful impact on the public. Can you share with us some of what you’ve discovered about the use of and the criminality of acid violence?

Demavlys:

A lot of these attacks go unreported so it’s hard to put a figure on how many women are being attacked every year in the world. Eighty percent of the attacks are in fact perpetrated on women.

The group of survivors that we have been in contact with in India estimates about 1000 acid attacks per year in India. The countries that have a prevalent problem with acid attacks are countries in south Asia and that is because of the easy availability of acid.

But there are a lot of cases in Colombia and Uganda and now recently in England.

In Pakistan and India cheap acid, which you can buy at the corner stores, are sold for household cleaning. In Bangladesh acid is also frequently used in the jewelry industry. In Uganda the perpetrators use battery acid to attack their victims.

After Patricia’s attack acid sales was banned from the stores in Belgium and she has also written to the European parliament to ban it in other countries as well.

WNN: Is acid violence a crime that is mostly committed against women, or are men also victims?

Demavlys:

Acid violence is most commonly committed against women but in Cambodia, for example, there are an equal percentage of attacks between the two genders.

Nigeria and Uganda both report a high percentage of male acid attack victims.

WNN: When and what gave you the idea to contact acid survivor Patricia LeFranc? How did it go when you first contacted her?

Demavlys:

I had been doing some research about acid attacks in Europe for about six months when I saw Patricia’s court verdict on the news in March 2012. I then contacted her lawyer who put me in contact with her press agent.

We set up a meeting that summer and she decided that a documentary about her life and recovery process was an interesting idea.

WNN: Documenting personal healing after acid violence can be very sensitive. How did you approach this in your film and in your filming of Lefranc?

Demavlys:

There is always a challenge when working with a sensitive subject matter.

The challenge is to know when you are overstepping a boundary, when it is time to just sit and listen to that person instead of pointing a camera into their face.

It was definitely hard for me working with Patricia in the beginning, but as the film moved along we began to build up a trust for each other and that is very important when working on a long term project.

In the beginning I was also doing the cinematography myself, today I am working with a very talented cinematographer which makes it easier for me to interact much more with Patricia during the filming.

WNN: What is your ultimate goal now in making this film? Can you share with us the next step for you, and how your recent crowd-funding campaign is all part of this?

Demavlys:

I want this film to show the audience that acid violence or violence against women is something that occurs to women regardless of race, religion, nationality or social class.

There is a movement to end violence against women and girls across the world right now and I hope this film will contribute to that movement.

There is a fundamental problem within many societies today that allows so much violence towards women. Also, men need to take part in this discussion and movement. They have an essential role to play in ending this.

I hope we can reach our crowdfunding goal. It is important for us in order to continue filming Patricia in what is going to be a very interesting and eventful year. And with reaching that crowdfunding goal we can also start shooting some very unique and specific scenes that will be included in the film.

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“Eternal Flame” is a feature length documentary about women from different cultures connecting through their shared experience of acid attacks. The film chronicles the multiple challenges these women have to endure – the most difficult one being the psychological battle of trying to be accepted in a world where physical beauty is heavily valued. The films main character is Patricia Lefranc. Patricia was attacked with acid by a former boyfriend outside her apartment in Brussels in December 2009. She spent three months in a coma and eight months in hospital following the attack. The perpetrator was later sentenced to thirty years in prison for attempted murder.

Help educate the public on the rising use of acid violence against women around the globe. Link to this Indiegogo campaign by “Eternal Flame” filmmaker Izabella Demavlys.

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Born in Sweden photographer and documentary filmmaker Izabella Demavlys studied photography at the Royal Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Australia as well as Parsons School of Deisgn in New York. For many years she focused on fashion photography, but in the fall of 2009 she decided to travel to pakistan to persue documentary work about women who had suffered brutal acid attacks. Her most recent work in the documentary film “Eternal Flame” shows the experience and rebuilding of women’s lives after acid attack.

WNN – Women News Network founder, executive editor and human rights journalist Lys Anzia was the first woman on the programming board for Public TV Channel12 KBDI in Denver, Colorado (U.S.) in 1980. She later worked as an award-winning playwright, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and a United Nations host and panelist on news in today’s digital media. Lys’s early career also began in public radio as an intern with Pacifica affiliate radio station WPFW-FM in Washington, D.C. In 2013 she joined leaders from the Pulitzer Center, Bloomberg News and Al Jazeera America for a fellowship on religion, journalism and the news. That same year she received formal recognition from the U.S. California State Legislature, both republican and democratic members, for her “…dedication and commitment to independent global journalism.”

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Recognized by UNESCO for ‘Professional Journalistic Standards and Code of Ethics” WNN began as a solo project. Today it brings news stories on women from 5+ global regions to the attention of international ‘change-makers’ including over 600 NGO affiliates and United Nations agencies.

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