Yes, A Walk to Beautiful is yet another Africa, Continent in Crisis movie. It is also a well-intentioned and beautifully shot film. Indeed, some of the images here of damaged women huddling alone, steeling themselves for another day as social pariahs are heart-rending and award-worthy on their very own. Alas, good intentions do not always great films make, and while A Walk to Beautiful is a good film and a necessary film, it does not quite transcend its limitations to become a great one. This is a shame because there is greatness here, begging to be freed from the timidity surrounding it.
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).
A Walk to Beautiful gains much of its power from the strength and conviction of these women on their medical pilgrimage, which they hope will elevate them out of their position as outcasts and reposition them as socially-acceptable members of their village. It’s a particularly difficult journey to watch as most of the women are so very young, many in their teens because, in Ethiopian society, girls are often married off by the time they are ten and are pregnant before they turn thirteen. This accounts for the problems in childbirth, as the bodies of these young women are simply not ready to deal with the many challenges of delivery.
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.
By walking a tightrope between exposing this disgraceful situation and not offending the culture of the people under the microscope, A Walk to Beautiful ends up backing itself into a corner. Rather than attacking the patriarchal heritage that allows and encourages such misogyny, the film chooses to focus on the nobility and spirit of the women who are battling to have their conditions treated so that they may regain entry into a society that, at some fundamental level, does not deserve them. That said, the unreserved joy on the faces of these women as they discover that the procedure has worked and that they will be able to return to their “normal” lives would move even the hardest heart. At that very basic human level, A Walk to Beautiful must be considered a success, if not quite the triumph it could have been.
Dan Jardine is a contributor to The House Next Door and the publisher of Cinemania.