The turbulent story of a support network for 9/11 survivors takes a turn for the bizarre when a reporter uncovers the fact the group’s leader isn’t who she says she is in “The Woman Who Wasn’t There,” a singularly unsettling film no less effective for deliberately giving away its twist in the title. With due sensitivity to the surrounding context, the docu delivers a tight, talking-head-driven portrait in which emotional recovery serves as a striking contrast to a case of extreme megalomania. After micro theatrical release, the pic will move swiftly to smallscreen formats, perfectly suited to cable and VOD.
Director Angelo J. Guglielmo Jr. had the strange fortune to be collaborating with Tania Head when the news of her deception broke. It had been Head’s idea to make a film about 9/11 survivors, using the World Trade Center Survivor’s Network as its focus. Rather than insert himself into the documentary, in the manner of “My Kid Could Paint That” and other hoax-related pics, the helmer proceeds on the assumption that auds have heard enough of her story to justify shifting the attention from the org to the paradoxical personality who had made herself its president and poster child.
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As Head’s former friends and group members recount oncamera, they were inspired by this lone woman’s resilience. Her story was so much more intense than anything they had experienced, and yet, she appeared to put aside her suffering in order to advocate on their behalf. The way Head tells it, she had a job on the 96th floor of the south tower and happened to be in the sky lobby when the second plane struck. That would have been bad enough, had her husband, Dave, not been trapped in the north tower.
The film opens with the self-described widow summarizing her improbably idealized romance with Dave, and it’s not long before some of her colleagues start to poke holes in her story. What they couldn’t imagine is that, beyond individual details not adding up, she almost certainly wasn’t even in New York on 9/11. The film carefully presents the testimony of Head’s now-furious friends as if to reflect the limited information they had at the time. While this approach suggests coaching (Guglielmo also co-wrote a nonfiction book with the same title), it helps to match Head’s interviews, which were conducted before the New York Times exposed her deception. That twist, central to how the film is organized, allows auds to evaluate her lies even as they consider the irony that she may have done some good.
Head’s story has since become a popular TV news subject and even inspired “The 9/11 Faker,” which features some of the same sources but no firsthand footage of Head. Instead of sensationalistically exploiting that ace, Guglielmo offers a more measured and reflective portrait. He uses paintings by Chase Stone rather than incendiary archival footage to illustrate key moments from Head’s tale.
After the fraud comes to light, the director travels to Barcelona to investigate Head’s true identity, though he omits her alleged reappearance under a new identity at a future 9/11 memorial service. Rather than asking why her fellow survivors didn’t question her story, the docu strives to understand what kind of person would choose such an awful fate to invent for herself. But the piteous feeling the film leaves in its wake surely isn’t the kind of sympathy Head had in mind.