Title: The Woman Who Wasn’t There
Director: Angelo Guglielmo, Jr.
For most sane and normal folks, the events of September 11 sparked not only shock and grief, but also an instinct of outreach — a desire to help, somehow, not only tangibly or materially, but also emotionally. The stories told by some of the survivors in the days and weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center Towers were so heartrending that an impulse to share or ease their burden was a fairly natural reaction. Tania Head, however, took that feeling to an extrapolated extreme that’s still rather hard to grasp.
Head told a devastating story of narrowly escaping death from the 78th floor of the South Tower, blown back against a marble wall by the impact of the airplane, badly burned and suffering from a deep gash that almost took off her entire right arm. She was saved by Welles Crowther, a young man wearing a red bandana whose heroic actions on that day were widely reported. Her common-law husband, Dave, however, was not so lucky — he perished in the North Tower. She spent two months in the hospital, and later co-founded the influential World Trade Center Survivors Network advocacy group. The only problem? Her entire story was a fabrication. On September 11, Head, actually born Alicia Esteve Head, was in post-graduate classes in Barcelona.
The documentary “The Woman Who Wasn’t There,” from executive producer Meredith Vieira, chronicles this bizarre, stranger-than-fiction story, interviewing around a half dozen of the chief subject’s former friends and peers in the aforementioned group. It’s even more peculiar when one considers that the director, Angelo Guglielmo, Jr., was actually pressed into making a nonfiction movie about 9/11 survivors by Head herself, before the truth about her deceit came out in a series of investigative articles published in the “New York Times” in the fall of 2007. That means Head is very much featured in the unintended resultant product that is “The Woman Who Wasn’t There,” narrating her (false) story while others recount their deep connection to her, creeping suspicion about her story, and eventual betrayal.
What makes all of this so psychologically arresting is that Head apparently did not financially profit from her scam, though she surely accrued a measure of notoriety and fame, giving site tours and taking photo-ops with politicians like Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki and Michael Bloomberg. Guglielmo, working with illustrator Chase Stone, uses imaginative animated sequences — slightly reminiscent of Ari Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir” — to breathe life into Head’s invented memories. He also dutifully covers some ground, tracking down in Spain both childhood friends of Head and reporters who covered the aftermath of the story on that side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Still, “The Woman Who Wasn’t There” unfortunately ends in rather abrupt and unsatisfying fashion. It feels like there’s much more to the story after Head being exposed, at least in an investigatory sense. While all of the other interviewees speak, both interestingly and often eloquently, about their conflicted feelings on Head’s deceit, Guglielmo doesn’t have a true ace up his sleeve — a family member who might shed light on the real Head, say. A 2008 email sent to the Survivor’s Network (not covered in the movie) suggested she’d committed suicide in Spain after being revealed. That certainly seems not to have been the case, but the almost flippant manner in which Guglielmo ends his too-slim thriller-cum-case study raises an entirely different set of questions.
“The Woman Who Wasn’t There” opens in Los Angeles at the Laemmle NoHo 7 and in New York City at the Quad Cinema, and also premieres on April 17 on Investigation Discovery. For more information, visit http://investigation.discovery.com/tv/the-woman-who-wasnt-there/about-film.html.
Written by: Brent Simon