::Literate Blather::
Tuesday, March 04, 2008
Movie Review: Beyond Belief

Documentary Captures the Powerful Story of Two 9/11 Widows

The sky that day was a yawning cobalt blue – a crisp, late summer morning infused with feathery glaze of autumn. It was a perfect day for picking apples, strolling along the Charles River, or visiting the Boston Common. But this innocent Tuesday would soon tumble into horror.

By 8:46 a.m., the first commercial airplane out of Boston crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center Complex. Less than 20 minutes later, a second commercial airliner – also originating out of Boston -- struck the South Tower.

The rest is history and that beautiful Tuesday now lives in infamy as September 11, 2001.

There are many stories about 9/11, but few as powerful and heartbreaking as those of Susan Retik and Patti Quigley. The suburban mothers from Massachusetts were pregnant the morning their husbands were murdered by terrorists.

Filmmaker Beth Murphy gives us an up-close and unflinching look at Retik and Quigley in the documentary “Beyond Belief” (now showing at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, but you can check the “Beyond Belief” web site for national screenings near you).

Before 9/11, Retik and Quigley were affluent mothers living in sprawling Colonials in the suburbs of Boston. The film begins with an emotional retelling of how these two women managed to grieve and find the inner will to give birth and continue to be pillars of strength for their children. They found each other during this emotional chaos and found compassion and companionship.

The remarkable thing about Retik and Quigley is how they used their grief to create a charitable foundation, Beyond the 11th, that supports war widows in Afghanistan. The film has a bold vision and a powerful message about healing. It’s difficult not to get emotionally involved with Retik and Quigley as they struggle in the aftermath of the tragedy that destroyed the tranquility of their lives. In fact, sometimes there’s a discomfort at how much the two women are willing to share.

But if you manage to get through “Beyond Belief” without shedding a few tears, you may want to check and see if you’re made of stone.

However, the documentary stumbles when the two women finally arrive in Afghanistan to meet the dozens of women their fundraising efforts are assisting to become self-sufficient. Beyond the 11th gives money to buy the Afghanistan widows incubators to raise chickens and sell eggs.

The juxtaposition between the two rich Americans and the scores of oppressed and poverty-addled widows in Afghanistan is striking. It’s telling when Retik expresses her guilt in the way she and her family live compared to the war widows. Both the 9/11 widows appear overwhelmed by what they experience in Afghanistan and as result the film loses its way.

The Afghanistan widows appear in short interviews, but their stories are given short-shift and viewers begin to get the same guilty feelings as Retik and Quigley. The experience of Retik and Quigley – while heartbreaking from an American perspective – pales in comparison to these broken, forgotten women in Afghanistan. These women have starved nearly to death, lost children to hunger, and husbands and sons to warfare.

It’s also clear that the generosity of Beyond the 11th is not nearly enough – in fact, it’s a drop in the bucket. There are fundamental problems in the country too big for a handful of incubators and chickens to solve.

But even with its flaws, “Beyond Belief” is beautifully filmed and at times inspirational. Retik and Quigley are trying to help, trying to use their grief for good rather than revenge. How can you not admire that even if you begin to realize that even with their losses Retik and Quigley are typical Americans – unaware of their advantages and good fortune until they come face to face with the harsh realities of their sisters in Afghanistan?

(photos from Beyond the 11th and Principal Pictures)

Read our post on life-altering movies here

Read our review of the "Grindhouse" DVD here

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