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Walk to Beautiful, A
Obstetric fistula occurs during violent birthing experiences; a small hole develops between the vagina and the bladder, resulting in a perpetual leakage of urine. It's a treatable affliction, but in countries such as Ethiopia, fistula is regarded as a mysterious disorder that leads to seclusion and fear among the villagers that lack the knowledge of proper obstetric care. "A Walk to Beautiful" is a tender, evocative documentary exploring fistula experiences from a group of Ethiopian women eager to be treated.
For these women, hope is not a readily available commodity. Their leakages are viewed with contempt and suspicion, tapping into the primal fears of the villagers, who often shame these women into isolation, leaving them to wallow in their insecurity and fear. Hope is offered at the Fistula Hospital of Addis Ababa, but to a majority of the African population suffering, the journey is almost as improbable as any cure.
The film presents a staggering statistic: 146 OB/GYNs for nearly 77 million potential patients in the region, with most young women forgoing basic obstetric care, paving the way toward elongated, often disastrous births. For the women of "Walk," the common thread is stillborn birth, where literal weeks of labor pass by before action is taken, resulting in fistulas and other wells of despair. To receive the support they need they make the trip to Addis Ababa, which is a grueling bus ride; taking days to arrive in a sweltering, judgmental vehicle. Not to mention the hours of treacherous foot travel to even arrive at the bus stop. Tired, humiliated, and despondent, the women arrive at the hospital doors ready for whatever the doctors can offer.
Presented surgical procedures they only marginally understand, the patients place special trust in the caring faculty, who take in more women than they can handle, with massive stacks of potential cases awaiting contact as well. With the patients in the facility for weeks, "Walk" carefully approaches the cloudy headspace of the subjects, as they fight to climb out of the trenches of indignity they've been forced into by loved ones and social order (most, if not all, grow suicidal). In Africa these kinds of barriers lead women to the extremes of hard labor, revealing another growing concern: stunting, or the literal restriction of physical growth due to such intensive work demands.
To witness the joy, the straightforward flight of the spirit, in the body language of the women who receive immediate help through surgery is an image not soon forgotten. While "Walk" doesn't address the underlying situation of uncooperative and destructive male figures in Ethiopian society, it nevertheless stays close to the heart of the picture: the critical restoration of hope. This doesn't necessarily mean everyone can be offered a simple fix. For 17-year-old Wubete, her journey of despair is almost too much to bear; the frustrated girl falls deeper and deeper into hopelessness as the doctors are unable to find a suitable solution to her fistula situation. It's heartbreaking storytelling, and I applaud this piercing inclusion of reality.
The non-anamorphic presentation is unfortunate for such an essential film. Handling basic documentary stylistics, the image quality is limited by the lesser screen dimension, stifling the striking HD photography. Colors still register pleasingly, and outdoor sequences remain communicative.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mix is a straightforward listening experience, with a passable separation of interview footage and scoring selections. It's blunt, but gets the job done, with some location atmospherics able to fill out the soundscape.
Four feature-length audio commentary tracks appear on the "Walk to Beautiful" DVD. Four! We hear from producer Steven Engel, director Mary Olive Smith, field director Amy Bucher, and co-producer Allison Shigo. That's a whole lotta commentary for this modest documentary, and to underline the unnecessary surplus of options, the participants barely speak for the duration of the tracks. While there's a warm verbal bedrock of information passed on by the group that helps to understand the inspiration behind the picture and the difficulties of filming in Africa, there's so much silence from the participants it begs the question, why not edit the four tracks into one good one?
"Fistula Worldwide: The Hidden Epidemic" (10:40) sits down with fistula experts and aid workers to talk about the dilemma facing economically disadvantaged countries who can't handle the medical situation without the proper tools and training. It's an educational featurette, slightly redundant, but another valuable piece of the puzzle.
"Wubete and Yenenesh: Three Years Later" (4:32) catches up with two of the documentary's participants, observing how they've thrived years after their initial screen appearance.
"Deleted Scenes" (10:30) continue the discussion of the fistula experience, through patients that can't find treatment, other medical complications, and a further look at domestic troubles.
A Trailer has not been included.
"Walk to Beautiful" doesn't shred political or social disgraces to satisfaction. This is not an enraged film, it's one of optimism and education, and I personally received a hearty shot of both from watching this assuredly upsetting, but oddly comforting documentary.