(2015) Documentary (International Film Circuit) Meryl Streep (narrator), Melinda Gates, Ann Gloag, Wole Soyinka, Dr. Jeff Wilkinson, Philippa Richards, Dr. Stephen Kaliti, Hawa Hawatouri, Vanesia Laiti, Juliette Bright, Isatu Kamara, Dr. Tagie Gbawuru-Mansaray, Lucy Mwangi, Omar Scott, Lois Boyle, Florence Banda, Margaret Moyo, Sydneylyn Faniyan, Jude Holden, Mary Yafet. Directed by Adam Friedman and Iain Kennedy
The mortality rate for both infants and mothers giving birth in Africa is staggering. A large part of the reason for that is a lack of adequate medical care, particularly for pregnant women. Here in the West, we are used to women going to obstetricians on a regular basis, being monitored to make sure all is well with the baby and the mom. With any sort of medical facility often requiring a drive of hundreds of miles and without access to transportation to get there, women give birth in unsanitary conditions. Babies often die before they reach the age of five.
A fistula is essentially a tear in the vaginal wall between the bowel or bladder. It causes leakage and incontinence, which leads to the women thus affected to be shunned by family and their village. They are not formed due to disease or genetic defects; they are the results of prolonged labor which here in the West can be avoided by a simple Caesarian section; in the bush, that isn’t an option. They can also be caused by sexual violence; they are not uncommon when children are raped.
They can be repaired surgically but it takes time and patience. Traditionally, women in rural African nations have been reluctant to go to Doctors and there were few facilities that they could go to, even if they wanted to and could afford to. Ann Gloag, a Scottish transportation mogul who began her career as a nurse, saw this issue and knew she needed to do something to stop the carnage. She began the Freedom From Fistula Foundation and helped open clinics and facilities throughout Africa. Two of them, the Aberdeen Women’s Center in Freetown, Sierra Leone and the Fistula Care Center at the Bwaila Maternity Hospital in Lilongwe, Malawi are profiled here.
We get to hear from the doctors and nurses who staff these facilities but more importantly, from the women themselves. Sierra Leone, recovering from a devastating civil war, in particular is heartbreaking as we see the rampant poverty of the slums, and hear horror stories of women abducted and used as sexual slaves. Even in Malawi, we hear about women turned out of their homes and essentially left to die before being brought to the Fistula Care Center.
Both facilities have outreach programs, attempting to educate women on pre-natal care as well as arrange for those already afflicted to leave their homes and go to the clinics to be healed. The women are often sent home with a device called a BBoxx, a miniature solar generator which can be used to charge cell phones which in villages with little or no electricity can be a paying job. It also provides electric power for small spaces, allowing women to live with light and comfort.
Streep narrates the film in a compassion-filled voice that reminds us that she is Hollywood royalty, able to convey even the most terrible words with something approaching comfort. Some of it must have been hard for her to say, but she does so without flinching.
The real stars however are the women themselves; wherever they go there is music. They are constantly clapping and singing, and despite being terribly sick they have a spirit that cannot be denied or stopped. You cannot help but admire these women, often outcasts whose husbands have deserted them but remain upbeat. When the women are cured, there is a ceremony slash party called Gladi Gladi which celebrates their return home. It is filled with dancing and music and laughter. They capture a few of them here and the joy is infectious.
The movie’s one flaw is that there are too many stories here. The film works best when they concentrate on a particular subject, such as Vanesia Laiti, the 70 year old woman who has lived with her fistula for 40 years and Mary Yafet, whose pregnancy at too young an age resulted in a fistula. They would have done better to select two or three patients at each clinic and allowed us to follow their progress. There are so many different people portrayed here that it’s hard to really get involved with any of their stories since we’re only hearing snippets. We also hear from philanthropist Melinda Gates whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a major supporter of Freedom from Fistula, and Nobel Laureate playwright and activist Wole Soyinka, who lends gravitas.
This is a major problem that has a simple solution. Clinics like these provide them, giving free medical care to women who desperately need them but more than that, give them an opportunity to live productive lives once they are cured. It’s an inspiring documentary that takes a subject that might be painful or uncomfortable for some and turns it into an uplifting celebration of the human spirit.
REASONS TO GO: Important material seldom discussed. The women are amazing. Great music.
REASONS TO STAY: The squeamish may have problems with a couple of scenes. Too many talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Some nudity involving nursing and birthing. Adult themes and some horrifying descriptions of rape and torture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The documentary was commissioned by the Freedom From Fistula Foundation, whose activities are the subject here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Timbuktu
BEYOND THE THEATER: iTunes
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
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