Friday, February 29, 2008

Beyond Belief

Look at the last post and the next one, and you might get the idea that the 16th was a busy day for me, movie-wise. Yeah, it was, and I still haven't written a review for Jumper yet. (For those wondering about the order - The Spiderwick Chronicles and Jumper at Boston Common, to Coolidge Corner for the Oscar shorts, and then the the MFA just in time for Beyond Belief. Then I went to a 24-hour movie marathon the next day. That was a lot of movies.

I was glad to get to see Beyond Belief, though - aside from it being cool to be offered a comp ticket because of this blog (yes, my attention can be bought cheaply, if not necessarily my approval), it's a pretty good movie, and there were a ton of filmmakers and subjects there, most of whom actually had something interesting to say. I hope I haven't said that the movie references things that I remember from the Q&A.

Anyway, pretty good doc. Beyond Belief formally opens at the MFA tomorow (1 March 2008), and will screen sporadically during March and April.

Beyond Belief

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2008 at the Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (preview screening)

Humanity is still around as a species because most of its members are basically good. They need to be, because one person giving into his or her more destructive impulses can create damage that require the actions of dozens to counter. Beyond Belief focuses on two of the people trying to make the world a better place.

Patti Quigley and Susan Retik came together because of their similar stories. Both women were stay-at-home mothers in the Boston area, both had husbands on the jets that were crashed into the World Trade Center, both were pregnant at the time. That's not a terribly uncommon story; it's what they did afterward that is notable: They started a foundation (Beyond the Eleventh) dedicated to raising money to assist widows in Afghanistan.

It's a noble gesture and the movie spends a fair amount of time showing us why it's a needed one. There are plenty of interesting facts handed out to us, both as numbers - the number of widows in Afghanistan, for instance - and facts about the culture - we learn that few widows remarry in large part because tradition dictates that the father's family would claim their children if they did so. The filmmakers spent some time shooting in Afghanistan, and we see first hand how devastated it is from decades of near-constant war, and how while the Taliban is no longer in control of the government, many of the rigid doctrines they enforced are still very much in place. Several widows are interviewed, so that we get to know them before seeing the relief efforts.

(Not in the movie, but worth noting: During a Q&A session after the screening, director Beth Murphy noted that they likely could not show this film on Afghani television, as the candid women interviewed sans burqa might face reprisals.)

That's a well-appreciated move on Ms. Murphy's part, as it does allow us to see the Afghan widows as strong women in their own right, as opposed to simply recipients of Americans' charity. The time we spend following Patti and Susan as they work to set up the foundation shows that they are committed to helping these women become self-sufficient as opposed to just distributing money in the short term. We're given just enough of a look at how their organization works to see what's going on, and also see the risks involved when they are glued to the news because a woman they met with earlier in the film is kidnapped.

It's not just about the foundation; Murphy also spends a fair amount of time highlighting these women as individuals and focusing on how they handle their grief aside from their charitable work. Patti seems especially uncomfortable with people not just identifying her as a widow, but as a 9/11 widow, even though she knows that's what keeps the charity visible. There's an amusing bit about how wearying it is, even years on - Susan says she still feels so lonely, Patti that there are people there for her, and Susan says, yeah, but they won't have sex with me. It's a nice little moment that illustrates the grieving process nicely - some things will always hurt, but life does go on.

What's most notable about Beyond Belief is that it integrates all three of these threads remarkably well - many a well-meaning documentary has fallen down by leaning too hard on outrage or admiration for its subjects, and while those factors are clearly present, they never overwhelm the need to show the audience interesting and useful things. Murphy and her crew manage to do a good job of both collecting raw material and putting it together, and resist the urge to over-dramatize events.

Which makes for a pretty good documentary. There are likely others about the same subject which push harder, but aren't necessarily more convincing.

No comments: