Beyond Belief

This emotional documentary tracks the lives of two white American women who both lose husbands on planes that crash in New York City on September 11th, 2001. The women eventually discover each other—both live relatively near-by in Massachusetts—and both happen to be pregnant at the time of their husbands’ deaths. The two women meet each other and find ways to deal with their grief.

Beyond Belief‘s main contribution is the focus upon how these women translate their victim-hood into a proactive cause for good in the world, as opposed to violent demands for revenge (like much of the US was snookered-into following 9/11 by the media). They form a non-profit organization that provides aid to women in Afghanistan who are also victims of the even longer war happening there. The process they pursue in dealing with loss—by channeling their energies into raising money for Afghani women—is both saddening and inspiring. The emptiness of their familial lives is matched only by the sadness they feel once they get the chance to meet Afghani women who have experienced comparable loss, although theirs is far more structural in nature.

Despite how moving Beyond Belief is, there were many things in it that were left unspoken and that may make viewers uncomfortable. First, the privilege these women have is irrefutable. Of course, they’ve experienced incredible tragedy, but the resources they possess make it manageable, compared to the most others who reside in poverty. From the houses they live in, the cars they drive, and the degree of freedom from want, it is clear they have ample financial resources (especially clear in light of their husbands’ occupations). But, the film never mentions the substantial monetary gift from the government to 9/11 widows (which is important to note, as no other widowed individuals receive such financial assistance, although many could use it). They do remark upon their economic privilege once they get to Afghanistan, but that trip alone is indicative of privilege—who has the financial resources to take weeks out of their lives, purchase expensive tickets, to travel across the world? They also have impressive family support: loved ones watch their kids while they raise money, have meetings, and travel to Afghanistan.

Initially, they are a bit naïve about what role they should have on the lives of Afghani women; they want to “do good”, but they possess political ignorance about what life is like in Afghanistan. In fact, the NGO they create appears to have little on-the-ground coordination or even consent from Afghan widows themselves, although another NGO named CARE does help out with this a bit. (In a dramatic plot-twist, an Italian aid worker that the women learn from early on is later captured in Afghanistan, which scares the women greatly and delays their trip to Afghanistan.) Although it is not emphasized, close attention to the documentary’s timeline shows that the women create their NGO after the Iraq War begins, not before it. This follows the pattern of people opposing US militarism only after the rabid, ultra-nationalism following 9/11 dies down and the far-less popular Iraq War begins.

Viewers who are knowledgeable of Orientalism, will notice some “othering” of Afghani women and the burqas, which was also common in the mainstream media at the time. There is some background given for why conditions in Afghanistan are so bad (and why there are so many widows), but like many American recountings of Afghanistan’s history, Beyond Belief also leaves out the crucial US participation. While it is a historically debatable as to whether the US coaxed the Soviet Union into a trap in Afghanistan (some US political leaders have claimed to do this), it is quite undebatable that the US funneled untold millions into efforts that helped to destroy the country, by funding Islamicist fighters to drive the USSR out of Afghanistan. These efforts—which, again, far too many Americans seek to gloss-over—contributed directly to the 9/11 attacks, as the mujahideen fighters eventually became the Taliban and the base support for al Qaeda. In other words, the US had an obligation to aid Afghani war widows many years before the 9/11 attacks and the [formal] US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

These criticisms of geopolitics, and liberal fund-raising and aid aside, Beyond Belief is a quite wonderful personal story about people overcoming great loss, finding purpose, and avoiding the easy trap of blaming “others” for bad things that happen. Over the course of the documentary, these two women reclaim their lives and contribute (on the whole) towards doing more good than bad for people in Afghanistan—something that few Americans can claim.

Topics: gender, family, terrorism, war, death/dying

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