February 8, 2008

February 8, 2008

Please note: Women & Hollywood will be off next week- posting will resume February 18th.

At the Theatres This Weekend
No large scale releases to recommend.

Opening This Weekend
A Walk to Beautiful (NY only)- see interview below

Currently in Theatres
The Savages
The Business of Being Born
27 Dresses
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
Mad Money
Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour

P.S. I Love You
How She Move
The Golden Compass

August Rush

The Orphanage

Interview with Mary Olive Smith, director, A Walk to Beautiful
In a world where the media is dominated by tabloid stars gone wild many important stories go untold and unseen. Most of the missing stories are the stories of poor people in countries far away struggling to survive while we here in the US are obsessed with Britney Spears' mental health.

Documentaries have been vital windows to these untold stories, and now with newspapers in crisis, they have become even more important in educating us about important issues around the world.

One of these documentaries, A Walk to Beautiful, opens today in NYC and later this month in LA. The film tells the story of five Ethiopian women who suffer from obstetric fistulas which cause them to constantly leak urine. They live in shame and are shunned from their communities, believing they are cursed and doomed to live the rest of their lives alone outside their families and culture. When they find out that other women suffer from this condition, and there is a place that can help, them they each start out on a long journey to the hospital that will hopefully help them regain their dignity and their lives.

This is a heartbreaking, moving film. The suffering and the shame of these women is visceral. The Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa is not only a hospital that performs physical surgeries on the women, they also stitch them back emotionally after suffering from years of depression and despair. The staff that works in this hospital led by an Australian ex-pat Dr. Catherine Hamlin who came to Ethiopia with her late husband in 1959, are nothing short of miracle workers. What they do for these women renewed my faith in humanity.

Mary Olive Smith spoke with Women & Hollywood about her experience making this film.

Women & Hollywood: Most people in the western world don't know what a fistula is, can you explain it to us?

Mary Olive Smith: The medical definition is an opening between an internal organ and the outside world. You can have different kinds of fistulas. We are dealing with obstetric fistula and that is an opening between the birth canal and the bladder, and in some rare cases between the birth canal and the rectum. It's caused by prolonged, unrelieved obstructed labor. The last recorded case in the US was 1895, but it was common all over the world before cesarean sections.

The only place in Ethiopia where there is advanced obstetric care is Addis Ababa. There are only 146 ob/gyns in a country of 77 million people and most all of them are in Addis Ababa.

Obstructed labor occurs in 5% of all labors all over the world, so those 5% need a c-section to successfully deliver a living child. In the developing countries when you add on the issues of early marriage and undernourishment, the rate gets higher. But, it's not just about early marriage and undernourishment. You will get fistulas unless you have trained medical technicians to perform c-sections.
W&H: How did you become interested in this?
MOS: I work at Engel Entertainment and I was asked by my boss to direct this film. It wasn't my idea. The idea came from a Nicholas Kristof column. I took on the job of envisioning it and developing it into a feature length film. My field director, Amy Bucher directed some of the women, and I directed others. Then I oversaw post-production. It was such a team effort.
W&H: What kind of outreach are you doing to spread the word about the film?
MOS: We have a grant from the UN Foundation and a grant from the Fistula Foundation which is the funding arm of the hospital. We are reaching out to universities, non-profit organizations, women's groups and medical groups to get as many people as possible to hold screenings. Nova will broadcast the film in May and they are also helping with the outreach.
W&H: How did you find the women?
MOS: I had two crews. One at the hospital interviewing women already there. I went into the countryside into one of the poorest areas called Gojam that has a high rate of fistula and I worked with the local clinics and churches and after a week later we still hadn't found anyone. The way we got to the women was talking to people in the market, to a woman outside a clinic, and then word started spreading that we were looking for a woman who was leaking. It was hard. Finally, through a chain of people I was led to Ayehu.
W&H: Do you feel an obligation to continue telling these stories?
MOS: Amy Bucher, my co-producer, pitched a follow-up story called Child Brides that aired on PBS in October. I am particularly interested in maternal health and learned that one woman dies every minute of the day from maternal injuries or related illnesses whether obstructed labor or hemorrhaging. It's unfathomable. Half a million women a year and that number hasn't changed in twenty years. I am in development on a proposal to do a documentary on maternal health and the hard part is going to sell it. I'm trying to make it "sexy enough" to get a broadcaster. The way to do that is to focus on the heroes in different parts of Africa where they are training the mid-level health professionals and midwives to do cesareans, By telling the heroes stories we can make it uplifting story. I hope to start fundraising this spring.
W&H: Was it hard to get the women to tell their stories?
MOS: I focused hard on being a compassionate and sensitive listener. The truth is they were really desperate to tell their stories. They opened up and you couldn't get them to stop. They were so surprised that anyone cared, that anyone wanted to know their stories.
W&H: I found the hospital staff beyond amazing and compassionate.
MOS: Especially with the brain drain in the country where doctors get trained and then take off and come to the US to work. Most of the surgeons at the Fistula hospital are Ethiopian with the exception of Dr. Andrew and Dr. Hamlin. They are extremely dedicated and extremely skilled. Fistula can be a fairly easy surgery yet some can take up to five hours.
W&H: Talk a little about Dr. Hamlin. Why has she dedicated her life to helping these women?
MOS: I wish I could have met her husband -- the two of them founded the hospital together in 1959. I have heard that he was truly inspirational too. Dr. Hamlin is the real deal. She's been there 50 years. She inspires not only to help women who are suffering, but also she's an extremely skilled surgeon and has inspired the medical community as well. They have managed to keep the hospital going through many brutal political regimes. Her biggest wish now is to have enough money in the bank so that when she passes away the hospital can continue for many years to come. So she is focused now on fundraising, not to just expand the hospital, (they are building five outreach centers throughout the country) but also to have an endowment. She is afraid of what will happen when she leaves.
W&H: These women suffer in silence. What did coming to the hospital do for their sense of self?
MOS: Most of them immediately start healing on day one, they open up they start laughing again. There are cases of women who are so depressed that nothing helps them right away and they need psychiatric treatment. The longer they suffer the harder it is. The suicide rate is high for fistula. The hospital surveyed and said that 98% have contemplated suicide and we don't know how many kill themselves because they are not visible. Fistula is a huge shame.
To get more information on Fistula:
Fistula Foundation (the U.S. foundation that raises money for the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital)
End Fistula Now (UNFP's Campaign to End Fistula)

To organize a screening contact: Allison Shigo, Engel Entertainment
(212) 413-9200