Tuesday, March 18, 2008

DAY THREE: FISTULAS AND FISTS

by Joyce Marcel

Before the films, some housekeeping.
From all accounts, one of the highlights of the festival so far has been "Run Granny Run" by Marlo Poros. It's a portrait of Doris Haddock, our New Hampshire neighbor Granny D. It ran on Sunday at the Latchis, with lively Granny D, now 98 - did I get that right? - sitting up front and center and answering questions. Sorry I missed it. I feel as if I've failed you as a blogger.
For those of us who seem to be living at the Hooker-Dunham this week, one constant has been Alex Gutterman. He's the latest in what feels like a long line of people trying to make something happen at the theater. He's working along with our own precious resource, Barry Stockwell, and he's trying to add events and music that will attract a younger, hipper crowd.
Before the delightful "Crazy Sexy Cancer," (more below) he told the audience that the festival has been "a transformative experience" for him. So naturally, I asked him why.
"I've been doing sound and projection for all the films," he said in an email. "I've found the series and its content, and the entire experience overall, to be transformative in at least two senses:
1) Deeply educational on women's issues - opening my eyes more widely to unique challenges and achievements of women throughout the world
2) Inspiring me with tales of integrity, courage and hope that have a significance beyond gender."
Thought you all would like to know.
Before I get back to the films, a warning. The Hooker-Dunham Theater, while a Brattleboro treasure, is death on subtitles. They're too low on the screen, and unless you're in the first few rows, you're going to have a hard time reading them. Alex knows about the problem, but because of technical problems, he can't really solve it. I've been sitting on the stairs, and that has made all the difference.

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Amy Bucher, the director, with Mary Olive Smith, of "A Walk to Beautiful," was at the Hooker Dunham for the first showing of the film. The house was packed, and she thanked us for "leaving your beautiful houses on a Sunday night to see a film about childbirth injuries."
At first, she admitted to us, she didn't like the title. "The women are already beautiful," she said. "I didn't understand." But she came around to it in time.
For the rest of us, it's not going to be as easy.
Set in the glorious back country of Ethiopia, as well as in a hospital in the capital, Addis Ababa, the film talks about a forbidden topic that is related to one that here, in our country, we would call child rape. In Ethiopia, it's just part of the culture.
According to the dictionary, a fistula is "an abnormal passage leading from an abscess or hollow organ." In simpler terms, it's a rip or tear or hole in an internal organ - in this case, usually the bladder or colon. It leads to fecal and/or urine incontinence.
In Ethiopia, Niger and other parts of the developing world, these fistulas are epidemic - Bucher called them "the modern leprosy." And they carry the same dreadful stigma.
Ethiopian girls are put to hard physical labor when they are very young - carrying huge filled water jugs for many miles, or working in the fields. So while they are well-fed, their growth is stunted.
They are also put out to marriage at a very early age - sometimes as young as four, but certainly by their teens. When they get pregnant, far away from such things we take from granted, like ob/gyns and hospitals, it is often the case that their public bones have not grown sufficiently to pass a child. In three, four or 10 days of excruciating labor, as they push to give birth, they tear their bladder or anus. The baby is often stillborn, and what they call a "doctor" removes it, piece by piece. Then, still mourning, they discover that they have a permanent "leak."
Those of us in Western societies who are incontinent put on panty liners or diapers and get on with our lives.
But these women are treated differently. They leak. They smell. And they are shunned by their friends, their families and their husbands. Usually, the family builds a shack in the back of the property for them, a simple shelter to keep them from being eating by hyenas, and there they stay, cut off from all human society, often for the rest of their lives. Some kill themselves. All suffer deep loneliness and have psychological damage.
What causes the leak is a fistula, a hole in the bladder or some other part of the elimination system. It's a hole that a surgeon can easily sew closed, but these women, living two- and three-day walks from a main road and days away from the capital, don't know that. They think they are unique, alone, damaged and flawed. And so they suffer in isolation.
Dr. Catherine Hamlin and her late husband, Dr. Reginald Hamlin, founded the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in 1974 to serve this hidden population.
"The Hospital has restored the lives and hopes of more than 32,000 women who would have otherwise perished or suffered lifelong complications brought on by childbirth injuries, specifically obstetric fistula," says their foundation Website, (fistulafoundation.org). "Today, the hospital provides free fistula repair surgery to approximately 1,200 women every year and cares for 35 long-term patients. Located in Ethiopia, it is considered the preeminent hospital dedicated exclusively to victims of obstetric fistula. They have developed the model program for fistula treatment worldwide, and have inspired numerous centers throughout the developing world. It is the world center for fistula treatment, long-term care, prevention, and training."
The hospital now has four satellites in the Ethiopian countryside.
The film is lovely to look at, but more importantly, as it follows a few women from their painful isolation in the countryside to their long journey to the hospital to their surgery to their recovery to their intense happiness, it somehow makes you feel more lovely inside - you take their walk to beautiful with them.
It is wonderful that this work is being done, that people like Hamlin and Bucher exist in the world (Bucher is now taking on the subject of child marriage), that this problem is now being named throughout the developing world, and is known and is being cured.
As one of the surgeons - a male - says of the work, "To do it is a good, good job."
But - and here's the but - there are over 100,000 women still living with this problem, waiting to be helped.

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The fist - raised, defiant, holding a rifle - belongs to the famous or infamous Leila Khaled.
"Leila Khaled: Hijacker," by Lina Makboul, is another of those films (see "Enemies of Happiness") where the subject is far more fascinating than either the filmmaker or the film.
In the early days of the Palestinian uprising, Khaled, born in Haifa in 1944 and stunningly beautiful as a young adult, successfully used hand grenades in to hijack TWA Flight 840 in 1969. Her goal was to make the world pay attention to her cause - the liberation of Palestine. And it worked.
The reason she and her team gave for the hijacking of that particular plane was that an "Israeli assassin" was on board. At the last minute, he decided not to travel. His name was Yitzhak Rabin.
Then Khaled disappeared, underwent a series of six plastic surgeries, and hijacked another plane in 1970. This one landed in London, where she was captured. But three other planes were hijacked at the same time and blown up. No one was killed. The British eventually traded her for the hostage passengers.
When the press got hold of her back then, she reports contemptuously, they asked her all the wrong questions. Had she ever been in love? Had she had sex? How long did she spend in front of the mirror every morning?
"They thought I wasn't human," she said. "I'm a fighter! Ask me about my work!"
Now stout and still defiant, she lives in Amman, Jordan with her doctor husband and two sons, where, somewhat stout but still attractive, she cooks, vacuums the living room in her pajamas, and continues the fight for Palestinian liberation. In the Arab world she is a hero. In the Western world, she is a terrorist.
What she wants? To return to the lost place of her childhood, Haifa. There is no question that this is sincere. Makboul visits Khaled's childhood home and brings her a tile. Khaled bursts into tears.
But the pilot of the El Al plane, who is interviewed in the film, says Khaled does nothing but lie. Her family was never forced to leave, he says. This difference is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, by the way. If, at some point, it is not discussed, debated and eventually put to rest, there will never be peace in that part of the Middle East.
Makboul is another displaced Palestinian, but she grew up in Western Europe, where she idolized Khaled as a kind of rock star of terrorism. She is very shy in her interviewing. The film is shaky and not very interesting to look at. And the one burning question that Makboul wants to ask Khaled - did she think, when she hijacked those planes, that she would damage the reputation of Palestinians forever - she never has the nerve to ask face-to-face. Instead, after the filming, she calls her up and asks. And we're not allowed to hear Khaled's answer.
It's interesting to note that during two hijackings, Khaled never killed. She never even hurt anyone. She had strict instructions not to use the grenades, she said. And she strongly disapproves of the 9/11 hijackers. "I don't agree with the killing of civilians," she said.
So, freedom fighter or terrorist, what's it going to be? Well, the filmmaker says this: If your side wins, you're a freedom fighter. If you lose, you're a terrorist.
And what do you think of that?

2 comments:

Bob Immler said...

Saw "Walk to Beautiful" and was deeply moved.

Googled Fistula and Ethiopia and found the hospital's web site.

I donated $37.50/mo. to provide the operation for one woman.

Hope it can actually do some good.

Alexander said...

We solved the technical problem. Thanks for the kind words!

-Alex Gutterman