Dir. Juanita Wilson, Ireland-Macedonia-Sweden. 2010. 109mins
Being in the wrong place at the wrong time makes a young schoolteacher a prisoner of an ethnic war in As If I Am Not There. Juanita Wilson’s troubling debut feature revisits the horrors of 1990s Bosnia through the fate of women in a single village.
The director dramatises real events as mute testimony, with the experiences of a mountain hamlet representing the fate that many thousands suffered.
The courageous newcomer Natasha Petrovic in the lead should focus critical attention on Wilson’s look back at the Bosnian version of a perennial fact of war, mass rape. The low budget debut won’t get much attention beyond the festival circuit and some art houses, but its indelible picture of wartime atrocities should keep it on the shelf in museums. Since other war crimes like ongoing Congo’s rape epidemic have overtaken Bosnia’s, Wilson can’t rely on headline topicality to help earn this film the audience that it deserves.
War is something distant when 20-ish Samira leaves her comfortable family’s apartment Sarajevo to replace a teacher who has disappeared mysteriously from a small village in the mountains. Within 24 hours, forces (never specifically identified as Serbs) enter the breathtaking landscape and round everyone up, including Samira, despite her plea that she’s not from there.
After the men are shot and the houses are burned, the women are bussed away and unloaded at an airplane hangar in the middle of fields. The young (including a child) are separated from old and forced into a makeshift brothel where they are humiliated, beaten and raped, and raped again.
Samira devises a survival strategy in a special relationship with the captain of the invaders. It involves makeup, sexy clothes, and an acceptance of the inevitable.
Shot mostly without dialogue, As If I Am Not There is Wilson’s adaptation of the grim novel that the Croation journalist Slavenka Drakulic distilled, in part, from testimony of women taken prisoner in the Bosnian War and raped in multitudes. The director dramatises real events as mute testimony, with the experiences of a mountain hamlet representing the fate that many thousands suffered.
The sombre numbing approach falls in line with the style of Wilson’s Oscar-nominated short, The Door (2008), a tale of mostly-mute displacement and death following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine.
In her feature, Wilson doesn’t skirt the vivid violent pain of the women’s detention. Rape is torture, and we see it, but not so much that the experience numbs the audience.
She also shows you that survival can require compromise with the enemy, which risks eroding any solidarity between the prisoners. And with women who’ve been raped repeatedly, the legacy of war in this film doesn’t end with a prison exchange that sends them back home.
Unlike Jasmina Zbanic’s Grbavica (Bosnia, 2006), which viewed the war’s legacy that torments a mother and her child conceived during rape, As If I Am Not There stays mostly in the time of war, focusing on the brutal crimes that are fated to be bitter memories for the women who survive them.
As Samira, Natasha Petrovic (an acting student in her first film role) begins her journey into hell as a bright-eyed urban teacher who believes her challenge will be in the classroom. Her face becomes a barometer of atrocities, and then a reflection of the calculated opportunism that means the difference between life or death. It’s a promising beginning for this gifted actress, as it is for Juanita Wilson as a director of features.
Bosnian actor Fedja Stukan stays close to nasty slightly-human military boilerplate as the captain with a photo of a happy family on his desk who seizes on his sexual combat privileges. The supporting cast of terrified and distrustful prisoners plays like a silent women’s chorus to Samira’s personal ordeal.
As the survivors’ tale moves from the majestic mountains to flat fields where the women are replacing the cattle that war drove away, cinmatographer Tim Fleming’s lingers on the prisoners, meditating on their transformation by the enemy into livestock that seem destined for slaughter.
The film has no scenes of soldiers fighting soldiers. It’s Wilson’s reminder that civilians suffered the worst casualties of this war.
Production Companies: Octagon Films, Wide Eye Films, Sektor Film, StellaNova Film, Film I Vast, Irish Film Board
International Sales: Octagon Films
Producer: James Flynn, Nathalie Lichtenthaeler, Karen Richards
Executive Producer: Winfried Hammacher
Screenplay: Juanita Wilson, based on the book by Slavenka Drakulic
Cinematography: Tim Fleming
Editor: Nathan Nugent
Production designer: Bujar Mucha
Music: Kiril Dzajkovski
Main cast: Natasha Petrovic,Fedja Stukan,Jelena Jovanova,Sanja Buric,Irina Apelgren