A Walk to Beautiful (Ethiopia, 2008, Smith/Bucher)
The issue under investigation by documentarians Mary Olive Smith and Amy Bucher is obstetric fistulas, which are tiny tears in a woman’s bladder and/or rectum that almost always occur during the sort of difficult labor that results in a stillborn child. With fewer than 150 OB/GYNs for Africa's 77 million women of child-birthing age, it is easy to see why such labors, which can drag on for days, end so tragically. One side-effect of obstetric fistula is incontinence, and this almost inevitably results in both social and familial shunning: the afflicted women are shunted aside, confined to their huts and shacks. Out of sight and out of mind, they live in isolation, humiliation and degradation. Smith and Bucher follow the efforts of five Ethiopian women with obstetric fistulas as they leave their private leper colonies and head for Addis Ababa, where they have heard tell of a clinic that can perform an operation to repair the condition. The problem is the hike to the bus station which, for many, can take several days. And once in the city, the women must join the long queue of the likewise-afflicted (literally tens of thousands of Ethiopian women).
The hospital that provides many women salvation is run by characters as wonderful as any in fiction, the result being the sanctification of some of the doctors by the documentarians. In these moments, A Walk to Beautiful seems to be slipping off the rails, as it becomes less about the women and more about their medical saviors. While understandable on one level—who doesn’t want to find a feel-good element in such a tragic tale of abuse and neglect—it is not really in the best interests of the film, the heart and soul of which is in the stories of the women and their courageous battle. Further, by spending so much time in the medical facilities, the filmmakers neatly sidestep some of the more difficult questions that must pop into the thinking audience member's head, such as why the government doesn't legislate a higher age for legal marriage, thereby indirectly addressing the terrible problem that is obstetric fistula. It seems like the ages-long patriarchy does not want to remove the option to marry children and, by neglecting to comment upon this, the film is a weaker document.