The primary subjects of A Walk to Beautiful are women who have been shunned and shamed by their communities after suffering traumatic childbirth injuries. Their strength and bravery in the face of such hate and the help they finally receive are the things that make the film uplifting, though the undercurrent of an imperialist ideology is a major drawback.

Director Mary Olive Smith looks at the lives of five Ethiopian women: Ayehu, Almaz, Zewdie, Yenenesh and Wubete have survived horrific, life-threatening obstructed labors (obstetric fistula), but their greatest challenges follow this already brutal episode. Back at home, their husbands abandon them and marry others, their fathers beat them, and only in a few cases do their friends and other family members give them support. Finally, the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital provides much-needed medical help to the women.

At its best, A Walk to Beautiful gives voice to the voiceless, and the five women (some only teenage) articulate their travails with honesty and courage, without any self-pity. Smith also defines the problem of obstructed labor in this region of the world, its various causes (malnutrition, child marriage, inadequate medical care) and its widespread sociological ramifications. Her film is highly professional and should be accessible and informative to anyone interested in its content.

Still, A Walk to Beautiful could have been a much tougher-minded film. When it starts out, the women’s stories are well-expressed by the women themselves, but as the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital staff take over their care, much of the narrative focuses on the medical workers. Since two Anglo women (Ruth Catherine Kennedy, Catherine Hamlin) are in charge, the documentary shifts uneasily from ethnographic to ethnocentric. At times, it becomes reminiscent of the well-meaning but racist documentaries of the distant past and suffers from an unintentionally patronizing Nanook of the North syndrome.

Technically polished (maybe too polished), Smith’s feature debut is strongest in the least “manipulated” scenes, but on several occasions her temptation to use melodramatic music undercuts the starkness of the subject matter. And as in most documentaries of its type, it is silly, even cruel, to have to watch the women walking across rugged terrain to get to the hospital and back, since it is obvious the film crew could have given them a more comfortable lift! In the name of authenticity, at these moments A Walk to Beautiful becomes the Hollywood type of thing it doesn’t intend to be.