Susan Retik and Patti Quigley met a few months after 9/11. Each woman's husband was on a doomed plane that morning, and someone thought it be might cathartic for them to talk to each other. They hit it off, became close, and found they shared a deep empathy for other widows, specifically women who'd lost husbands and more after the United States invaded Afghanistan. So they started Beyond the 11th, a charity that raises money to help Afghani widows. This is all recounted in "Beyond Belief," a documentary whose intentions are as noble as Retik's and Quigley's but whose effect is only half as moving as it could be.
The film, which begins a run today at the Museum of Fine Arts, invites us to spend most of its 90 minutes with Retik and Quigley, who both live in the Boston area. That's long enough to bring a viewer to an uncomfortable realization: The movie is accosting us so indiscriminately with how decent and good and selfless these two are that they verge on seeming passive-aggressively righteous.
They ride their bikes from Lower Manhattan to Boston to raise money. They talk about their healing on local and cable news channels. They say they want to export love and kindness not more hatred. But director Beth Murphy makes the grave choice to have Retik and Quigley talk us through their revelations, their tears, and their determination to get on with their lives. They seem inadvertently overexposed in their own story. Good intentions aren't inherently watchable.
Murphy has no way to bridge the amazing gulf between these two well-off American suburbanites and the impoverished women they want to help. Quigley expresses shame at her comparative good fortune. But the dramatic balance tips too far toward her and Retik, how their kids are coping, how their families have supported them emotionally. Interviews with Afghani widows are tossed in. But like her two widows, the filmmaker seems more comfortable in New England than in Kabul. It takes an hour and apparently some prodding from aid workers for Retik and Quigley to make the trip east.
The film has some striking imagery, particularly in Afghanistan, where the ubiquitous burkas are incredibly, ironically photogenic, even as they pose understandable affronts to Retik's and Quigley's senses of self. They're moved to tears. Still, the lines between empathy and pity, selflessness and myopia seem extremely thin. At some point, Retik wants the women to ask her more pointed questions about America.
During this 20-minute stretch, we get an inkling of how the money they've raised is being put to use, and we see tragedy's merciless grip on the region. Some of the Afghanistan scenes suggest that's where the best documentary is. Retik and Quigley hear from one wizened and hobbled woman who lost seven sons in a bombing campaign. The horror still possesses her face. If the movie intends to raise awareness and some money, it's stories like hers that break hearts and open wallets.