After two women lost their husbands on 9/11, they channeled their grief into a most unusual form of charity.
Dir. Beth Murphy, 2008, 82 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant
So it’s 9/11. Beyond Belief isn’t the perfect documentary to watch in observance. That distinction belongs to Rebirth, a truly extraordinary, decade-spanning look at how the nature of grief and healing. That’s the 9/11 movie to beat. But I’ve already seen it, so I can’t cover it as a Doc of the Day. I found this little film instead, and while it’s no Rebirth, it’s a very moving look at how two people turned tragedy into the impetus for something wonderful.
Susan Retik and Patti Quigley both lost their husbands on 9/11. While struggling to get by as single mothers in the aftermath, their attention was drawn to the plight of others living in similar situations to theirs: that of widows in Afghanistan. A country ruled by decades of strife has untold thousands of women without husbands, and in a society that oppresses them, they have little opportunity to improve their lives. Susan and Patti decided work to raise money to aid these women. Beyond Belief follows them over the course of years as their movement grows, and they slowly piece their lives back together.
Susan and Patti demonstrate the kind of grace that almost seems inhuman. In a time when most Americans were predisposed to view the Afghan people as enemies, they recognized the common humanity in them, and reached out to help those in need. In a small way, they broke a cycle of bitterness. The pair recognized that continual hate is what feeds the kind of extremism that took their husbands lives, and sought to quash it with love. The film culminates with them visiting Afghanistan, and there they find sisterhood with their fellow widows.
It troubles me somewhat that, while there are two fully sketched-out American protagonists, the Afghan women all seem interchangeable. The doc gains so much by contrasting the representatives of the two countries, and it would have gained even more had both sides been equally well-known to us. Empathy flourishes through familiarity.
Running parallel to Susan and Patti’s fundraising is their healing process. There’s some poignant stuff here about how the pain of loss fades. The human ability to let go of grief is truly a remarkable thing. It’s suggested that the duo’s charity is a major factor in their being able to move on. There’s a valuable lesson in that for a good number of people, no matter what past trauma they’re holding on to.
Beyond Belief doesn’t try to soak 9/11 in feel-good sugar in an attempt to make the attacks feel palatable. It’s an honest look at how we process our tragedies, with all the highs, lows, and dullarity that entails. It could have gone further in its pursuit of connecting us to the women living in a faraway place, but as it is, the movie is still affecting, a soberingly uplifting look at recovery.