As If I Am Not There is the first full length feature from Irish director, Juanita Wilson, best known for her Oscar-nominated short about Chernobyl, The Door(2008).
As If I Am Not There is the first full length feature from Irish director, Juanita Wilson, best known for her Oscar-nominated short about Chernobyl, The Door(2008). Set in Bosnia during the war, the film shows the horror of life in the work camps through the eyes of the central character, Samira (Natasa Petrovic), a young teacher from Sarajevo.
It’s not an easy watch – but then if you’ve chosen a film about the Bosnian war then you’ll probably be guessing that already. Over the course of 109 minutes, we see Samira go from being a carefree middle class 19-year-old to a psychologically and physically damaged woman. The story is based on the novel by Slavenka Drakulic and begins with Samira leaving her family home in Sarajevo to take a position as a local school teacher in a tiny rural village. Within days, the village is taken over by the Serbian military and things start to turn nasty. Families are split, with the women and children being taken to an empty warehouse in the middle of nowhere and the men taken elsewhere. The young and attractive, including Samira, are picked out for the soldiers’ pleasure and kept captive in a house on the compound. In the house, the women are subjected to brutal gang rape and abuse. The turning point comes when Samira decides she “isn’t an animal” and that the soldiers are ‘”just men” and decides to play her own game by flirting with the army captain and winning his attention, and some freedoms, in the process.
Is the gruelling slog through this often horrifying story worth it? Well, yes. It’s a story that needs to be told and ultimately it’s well acted with the leads (Macedonian drama student, Natasa Petrovic as Samira, and Fedja Stukan as the captain) delivering convincing performances in a script that actually has little dialogue. And it looks good too – stunning sweeping shots of mountain vistas and vast open Macedonian wilderness (standing in for the Bosnian countryside) help convey a genuine sense of isolation and desolation.
But despite the horrors you see portrayed in graphic detail in front of you, it’s difficult to really care about the characters and what they’re going through. Petrovic does well in conveying fear, despair and anger in equal measure, often just through the power of a look or twitch of an eye but despite this we still aren’t really sure who she is and why all of it matters. Her relationship with the captain is probably the most compelling part of the film but that is the only real character development we get. You come away aware you’ve seen something unsettling, brutal and important but then not really feeling much else. This sort of story should pack a real punch and yet somehow it doesn’t manage to.
Angelina Jolie’s Hollywood version of events, In the Land of Blood and Honey is due for release in December this year. It’ll be interesting to see if she can do any better.