What kind of person would lie about being a World Trade Center survivor? Tania Head, real name Alicia Esteve Head and the focus of documentary “The Woman Who Wasn’t There” (airing on the Investigation Discovery channel tonight at 8pm and currently playing at the Quad Cinema), did just that for years, and more. She became a prominent figure in the community, meeting with families of those who died in the Towers, telling her story about being pulled from the fiery disaster that claimed the life of her fiancé, and making a slow, painful recovery from the injuries she sustained — there was even a plaque at the Tribute Center bearing a quote from her.
But it was all made up. Head didn’t even move to New York from her hometown of Barcelona until 2003. She invented the job at Merrill Lynch she claimed she was working at on September 11th, she had no apparent relationship with the man she said she was on the verge of marrying when he died in the North Tower. She became the president of the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network, having possibly never even set foot in the buildings.
This is potent, potentially monstrous stuff, and “The Woman Who Wasn’t There” speculates on but never really pins down its subject, though it’s built around interview footage with Head that goes up to the point at which her fabrications were uncovered; when a New York Times reporter was doing a story for the sixth anniversary of the event, she vanished. Director Angelo Guglielmo (“The Heart of Steel”) says in his director’s statement that it was Head who pursued him, offering him incredible access to her story and that of the other survivors she’d befriended. He was eventually persuaded to make the film along with a book he cowrote with Robin Gaby Fisher.
“The Woman Who Wasn’t There” has the rote look and feel of an investigative TV program, complete with courtroom-style illustrations of some of Head’s claims, including the details of her invented relationship. But despite this, watching it feels like observing a massive trainwreck, particularly when the other survivors talk about their relationships with Head, how they admirered or depended on her and what that cost them. One survivor uncovered evidence that suggested she’d been lying, but couldn’t bring himself to expose her because he was afraid of what it would do to the group that had become so important to him. Linda Gormley, another survivor who became one of Head’s closest friends, tells in one notably heartwrenching moment of being scolded by the woman for not being supportive enough, because “the trauma she had sustained was so much worse” than what Linda had experienced.
Reporters in Spain appear as talking heads to delve into Head’s background as the daughter of a disgraced factory owner, her youth spent as an unhappily overweight teenager obsessed with America, the auto accident that left her with scars. But it’s a journalist from Time who offers the most potential insight when noting that we all wanted to have a piece of 9/11. It meant instant community, instant attention and caring — a story to tell that made you important for just having been there, for having made it through. That someone actually acted on that, so boldly and shamelessly, is still a little hard to understand. The film ends abruptly with footage from when Guglielmo spotted Head on the street in 2011. In it, she doesn’t speak, though that’s all you want — for her to explain why, to explain how.