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Beth Murphy, Beyond Belief

Patti Quigley with an Afghan widow in Beyond Belief (Photo: Beth Murphy/Principle Pictures)

By S.T. VanAirsdale


STV: Your film is a world premiere at Tribeca. What kind of background can you provide about it?

BM: The film focuses on two suburban American moms (Susan Retik and Patti Quigley) who lost their husbands on Sept. 11. It was really a starting point for them to really open their eyes to the world. When I first heard about it, it really surprised me; you'd think that people become much more insular or even xenophobic in a situation, and that everyone would understand if they had. Instead they did the opposite, and began to really learn about what happened on Sept. 11 -- how did this happen to them personally, to America.

And they started obviously to hear a lot about Afghanistan. Where is this place, what is this place, why are terrorists being trained there, and what's going on there that makes this possible? And they really started to learn about life in Afghanistan; first just in general, then more specifically what life was like for women. Then they stopped and thought: 'My God, if life is that bad for a woman, what must it be like for a widow like us?' That's what they wanted to do something about. What I thought was pretty extraordinary from the beginning was the kinship with the women -- so far away, coming from such different backgrounds. I thought, "Is it really possible?" I know that they feel this inside, and they have such a longing and a desire to go there and to meet the women, but I really wondered when they got there, would those connections be true? Could they be true? Indeed they were. It was really powerful to watch and to film.

STV: How did you find Patti and Susan?

BM: I'm involved in immigration and refugees work in the Boston area, and it was through that work that I became aware of them and what they were doing. They were strangers on Sept.11; they were both pregnant, and people who knew them said, "You know, there's someone in the next town over; she was also pregnant and she also lost her husband on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center towers." They were somewhat reluctant to meet; the way Susan put it was, "I didn't want to take on someone else's grief, and if we didn't get along, then it would be the worst 45-minute coffee of my life." But sure enough, they really hit it off and became so close. They had already started an organization called Beyond the 11th to try to help Afghan war widows; it wasn't too long after that I came into the picture.

STV: How amenable were Susan and Patti to your project, and how long did it build the rapport you needed to pursue the story?

BM: I filmed with them for over two years, and you're right: It's about trust, it's about relationships, and a film like this would be impossible without that. I feel like I became close with them almost immediately; I have three sisters, and in different ways they remind me of either myself or one of my sisters, and I see those qualities and characteristics, and I have an enormous amount of respect for them and what they're doing. What you notice as you're interviewing is that in the beginning, I think people say what they think you want to hear. But as time goes by, you get to more of the real person. And it's not that the first interview doesn't present the real person. But the better you know someone as an interviewer, you know better which questions to ask. There's just a relationship there to be able to build on. And that's something that's irreplaceable in an interview process.

STV: Then you went to Afghanistan, where you have a limited amount of time in addition to language barriers and political barriers. What was your experience as both a filmmaker and a source of outreach, in a lot of ways?

BM:
The first issue was safety. They were very sensitive to any issue around safety. It was a very difficult decision for them to travel to Afghanistan, particularly after our main point of contact on the ground was kidnapped at gunpoint in May 2005. There seemed a time when it was certain that they would not travel to Afghanistan; it was just too dangerous and there was too much family pressure not to go. We then went in May 2006. I made it very clear that I would respect their wishes on the ground in Afghanistan, and if they were uncomfortable with where we were filming, say the word.

I was also constantly aware of influencing or changing their experience of meeting the women because the cameras were there. We really tried as much as possible to keep a low profile; there were just two of us -- me and a cameraman -- and I really tried to respect their time with the women, so that when they were meeting with the women, and they were talking with the women, it was their time.

STV: Considering your film's basis in the events of Sept. 11, what are you hoping the film brings to Tribeca?

BM: My dream is that viewers will walk away from the film feeling a deeper connection to our world. And my goal with the film itself at Tribeca is distribution.

Posted at April 26, 2007 9:38 PM

Comments (1)

I worked in Afghanistan, Kabul, in 1965, and it saddens me to see so much devistation, with 500,000 widows who have no place to turn to. From what I gather, the Koran never said women should live in such subjucatation.

Our press never stressed that the highjackers were Saudis, and the taliban also were not Afghans, only took over when the Russians left. A horrible history of war on their land for decades and the sufferers were mostly women and children. As a woman I cry for my gender all over the world; Will mankind never learn from their actions?

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