In retrospect, I'm not entirely sure why I decided to watch A Walk to Beautiful. Five Ethiopian women travel to the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. Have you ever heard of a fistula before? 'Cause I hadn't. I thought, Oh, just another disease prevalent in Africa because a buncha people there don't have access to decent health care. Should be emotionally devastating. But, I wasn't putting enough emphasis on emotionally devastating when I pressed play - maybe because it's only about 50 minutes long (85 minutes was the length of the original cut, but the 50 minutes for the PBS Nova version was more than enough for this guy).
Meet Ayehu, a 25 yr old single woman who lived in a straw shed, separate from her family, because she had a fistula, which is essentially a hole between organs' passageways that aren't really supposed to be there. In Ayehu's case, it was a hole between her bladder and vagina, so she constantly leaked urine. This happened because of her intensive, several days long labor in which she gave birth to a dead fetus, but the internal trauma of the experience had caused this fistula to appear. And apparently this is common enough for there to be a fistula hospital in Addis Ababa, where women all over the country travel for help.
Not a simple journey. Ayehu, for example, had a six-hour walk to the nearest road to take a 16 hour bus ride to the capital. Family did not travel with, and the women had to suffer the embarrassment of the long, hot bus ride sitting in and smelling like their own excrement (thus the incessant shunning from families, which sometimes drives these women to consider or commit suicide), not to mention the hygienic nightmare of such a situation.
As an American, though, I probably decided to watch this because I like success stories, or stories that make me hopeful and then satisfy my hopes in two hours or less. A movie titled A Walk to Beautiful has that kinda shit written all over it. Ayehu's beautiful walk, for example, while having the treacherous subtext of walking six hours and leaking urine down her leg the entire time, showed the untouched beauty of rural Ethiopia, and it was a walk endured to end suffering. And this hope and beauty is all here in this doc, but not before reality kicked me square in the nuts a few more times.
Wukete, a 17 year old, was at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital for her third time. Her fistula had been repaired, but she continued to leak. Let's take a timeout for some "fun" facts: 17 yr old Wukete had been married four times, escaped her first three husbands, received beatings from her father for leaving her husbands, did not have a mother, and stayed with the fourth husband because she got pregnant. She was in labor for, let's see...10 days? I could be wrong. It might have been 12. But back to the present narrative - though her fistula had been repaired in previous visits to the Fistula Hospital, her bladder had been crushed and shrunk to a size not able to contain her regular production of urine.
Now, Wukete was about as depressing as anything, but there was good news.
These fistulas? Yeah, not terribly difficult to repair. Well, the success rate at Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, at least from what A Walk to Beautiful depicted, seemed awfully high. These women came from across the country to find crowds of women suffering from the same condition, when they originally thought they were the only ones in the world. As Dr. Hamlin indicated, the emotional healing process at the Hospital can be as critical as the surgery itself. The women were relieved to hear others sharing the same stories that had haunted them for years, in some cases. They'd go home to their families to be accepted and loved again and tear down their straw 'quarantine' sheds.
But Wukete refused to return home. A wild horse at heart and trapped by circumstance, she plead with the nurses to help her find a place to go where she had a chance at being happy. And well, her smile was worth the emotionally taxing price of pressing play.
Material like this shocks our senses. I edited out some of my descriptions of these women's lives because I felt overwhelmed rereading it, which supports Acrassicauda drummer Marwan's final argument at the end of Heavy Metal in Baghdad.
After the band convinced filmmakers Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi to show some rough edits of the documentary's early footage, Marwan saw their old practice space in Baghdad demolished for the first time (he and guitarist Tony were first to leave Baghdad for Syria - the new home of over 1.2 million Iraqi refugees since the start of the Iraq war). Acrassicauda had spent better parts of days, weeks and months in this practice space learning to play the metal they loved listening to, and Marwan's memories of developing his passion for drumming lay amidst the videotaped rubble. "These are things that you lay your back on," he says. "These are the things that you turn off the TV whenever, or like change the channel when it's on...daily life in Iraq..." 23 yr old Marwan is right - it is a privilege to ignore the worst things that are happening in the world. Neither he nor Acrassicauda could ignore the destruction of their practice space that had enabled their passion.
Acrassicauda, the only metal band in Iraq, allowed Moretti and Alvi to film their lives from the start of the Iraq War in 2003 through the close of 2006. Life in Baghdad was decidedly not better after Saddam's regime, according to the band. They were all on edge, and Marwan cried out early in the film that he played drums so that he didn't kill someone. The bass player Firas, with whom the filmmakers spent much of their time, indicated that not only was his Slipknot tshirt endangering him, but his goatee was scrutinized as well (he decided to grow it into a beard). It was Firas's video of the aftermath and rubble of their practice space that Marwan saw - images familiar to the viewer by the time Marwan watched. The band had been split by the political turmoil and members of the band left for Damascus, Syria, where the others eventually went for refuge as well.
Firas hated Damascus and missed Baghdad. He joked that the rockets, bombs, and gunfire became a part of him that was now gone. Though safe, he was not at ease. They reignited Acrassicauda, however, and played a show in a large room in a basement, resembling a fancy catering room (not the ideal metal venue). Members had concluded this may be the last Acrassicauda show.
But something happened at that show that I've never seen at a show in America. They sucked. Hard. They opened with the unfortunate 80s pop smash "The Final Countdown," but 'metal-ed' up a bit (not a good thing). They'd prepared many cover songs because their metal scene in Iraq had either fled the country or died, and they weren't at home anyway. They knew as little of what to expect as the spectators (of which there appeared to be none, initially). Having been cautious at first with song selection, they let go and played Metallica.
Now, stop a second. Think of how we perceive Metallica now (lame?). Now, think of what Metallica might mean to oppressed Iraqi's and Syrians frightened of the war spilling into their homeland.
The crowd reacted. The room sparked. Acrassicauda, to the audience (now an actual crowd) for that moment, was Metallica, and would probably be the closest anyone in that basement would ever get to seeing the Metallica. Acrassicauda continued with their heavier covers and received more raucous praise from the audience. Confident now, they smashed out their original songs which were met with yet more cheers. Afterwards, they all concluded they could not disband.
A disaster gone success - a near impossibility at an American music venue. I'll be the first to admit that the second a band starts to suck ass, I don't give them a second chance. Part of the luxury of having the freedom to enjoy whatever music I like in whatever capacity, I guess.
And speaking of freedoms, this guy's glad, perhaps more so than ever, that he never has to bear the responsibility of birthing a child. And speaking of things that make this guy glad, I'm glad my metal-loving ass doesn't live in fucking Baghdad for crying out loud. *Air guitar squeal*