Dir: Beth Murphy. US. 2007. 98mins.
Beyond Belief follows two 9/11 widows outside Boston as they rebuild their families. The women move beyond grief and beyond their own experience to start a charity to help the thousands of Afghan women whose hardships from decades of war and discrimination is barely know to most Americans. The documentary is a motivational tale about turning a misfortune into an opportunity for empathy and healing.
Part family reality story, part journey, Beyond Belief should have a strong run on the festival circuit, after which it seems likely to move to cable television, where it can test whether the general audience is ready for another film about the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
The Tribeca Film Festival is Ground Zero for this mini-genre, and tends to be the place where they debut, and often then disappear. International interest will probably be limited to cable outlets.
After September 11, the housewives Patti Quigley and Sue Retik met each other as widows who were both pregnant when the attacks took the lives of their husbands. Raising children on their own, they shared their grief and became close friends, also looking for a way to get beyond the tragedy that devastated their families
In Beth Murphy's heartfelt documentary, the camera hovers around both families as if it's shooting a reality show in the Boston suburbs.
Both women are strong, likeable, and self-deprecating. Each uses the word 'murder' when speaking of how her husband died, yet neither parrots the Bush party line of revenge and punishment. Despite the pain that reduces mothers and children to tears on the spur of the moment, each family seems on the way to a promising recovery.
Children seem content, and neither woman has money problems. Most aggrieved families haven't had such luck landing on their feet.
And most 9/11widows haven't had the pluck to travel to Afghanistan, which is where Patti and Sue journey after raising money through marathon bike rides from Ground Zero to Boston. Their trip to Kabul follows familiar contours as the two Americans encounter women who have lived with poverty even longer than they have lived with war, which has been constant since 1979.
Second-class status in Islamic culture seems to doom future generations to poverty, a problem which the two Boston widows pledge to address.
With aid organizations assisting them, the young widows commit funds to support a poultry project that enables Afghan women to sell eggs and begin to earn income. It's a powerful image, and an austere reality-check - a modest, practical program, which points to the difficulty of achieving anything and to the benefits than can be gained from the smallest of donations.
Another unstated message is that the money spent on weaponry for men is vastly greater than that spent on humanitarian aid for women and children.
The earnest film gets interesting when the danger of doing anything in Afghanistan becomes clear as a news story overlaps with the story that the films is trying to tell. One of the aid workers helping them, Clementina Cantoni, is kidnapped and shown on videotape looking down gun barrels. Cantoni, whose abduction was a cause celebre in 2005, is one of the lucky few of such hostages to be released alive.
The incident reminds the audience that Americans, although victims of the 9/11 attacks, remain relatively safe, compared to the populations, and especially the women, of Afghanistan.
Had director Beth Murphy and her two travellers ventured beyond the capital city, they would have found a far more dangerous and impoverished place.
No cinematic ground is broken in Beyond Belief, and its insights won't surprise anyone who has followed the 9/11 aftermath closely. Beth Murphy's film is directed and shot to look a lot like documentaries on the Public Broadcasting System in the US.
The warm personalities of the two widows keep it from being pro forma PBS fare and from falling into sentimentality, although their story could be told more efficiently in an hour format.
The Film Sales Company