Venturing ever-so-gingerly into the delicate medical problems of certain Third World women, “A Walk to Beautiful” was the Intl. Documentary Assn.’s pick as best doc of 2007, hits bigscreens in New York and Los Angeles in February and airs on PBS’s Nova series in the spring. Competently made, precisely shot and buoyantly humanistic, the film nonetheless may fall victim to the gaping schism between what auds will attend at film festivals (where “Walk” has won a number of audience awards) and what they’ll actually go to see in theaters.
If pic’s B.O. potential seems slight, the same can’t be said of the film’s impact on awareness of Africa, altruism and the lifelong misery caused by reparable medical conditions in areas where the closest road can mean a three-day hike.
The condition at hand in “Walk” is obstetric fistulas, which cause bladder leakage (not to mention recoil among the moviegoing public). Pic is not only about the Ethiopian women who suffer from the problem, but also the big-hearted doctors who fix both the anatomical tears and the women’s lives. The story is largely upbeat and life-affirming — all the things the film industry tries to generate through the anemic machinations of the standard romantic comedy.
“A Walk to Beautiful” is a bit too beautiful: The colors (via helmer Mary Olive Smith and Tony Hardmon’s HD lensing) are overly vibrant, the sun is always shining, and the subjects, when not recounting the embarrassment and ostracism they suffer because of their condition, are ingratiating.
But the film exhibits almost no anger — not about the fact that the women in question have grown up overworked and undernourished and as a result have underdeveloped hips and lack the pelvic capacity for childbirth, nor about the fact that they are often forced into adolescent (or even pre-adolescent) marriages, become pregnant and have their undersized insides ripped up by babies that are usually born dead.
The fistulas, or tears, result in uncontrolled urination, which makes the women miserable outcasts among their own families, when all they often need is simple surgery. Docu is discreet in how it presents the women’s problem, and deals gently with the occasional complicated or insurmountable case. But it makes very little noise about the evils of superstition, predatory sexuality, the oppressive patriarchy of Ethiopian society or the kind of ignorance that can force a woman to live out her life in a hut like a leper (a comparison made by a doctor, not the film).
“A Walk to Beautiful” is enlightening and pretty, but lacks the requisite bile to give it sufficient heart.