As if I'm not there

 

Directed by Juanita Wilson. Starring Natasha Petrovic, Fedja Stukan, Jelena Jovanova, Sanja Buric, Stellan Skarsgård 16 cert, lim release, 109 min

If you viewed Juanita Wilson’s impressive debut feature with no prior knowledge, you would, no doubt, be surprised to learn that it is an Irish co-production.

A grim, sober tale of the Bosnian war, As If I Am Not Thereis supremely confident in its grasp of place and its feel for a wretched episode in recent European history. Yet the film is, indeed, directed by an Irishwoman, photographed by a domestic cinematographer and part-financed by the Irish Film Board.

Natasha Petrovic plays Samira, a young woman from Sarajevo who, as hostilities ferment during the early 1990s, finds herself teaching in a rural village. A gang of armed thugs arrive and, after shooting all the men, imprison the women in a shabby overcrowded room.

Samira’s pleas that she is an outsider fall upon hostile, uninterested ears. Before long, an awful ritual of repeated rape begins.

Adapted from a book by Slavenka Drakulic, the film – short on plot, shorter still on dialogue – ventures an analysis of how such pressure acts upon the women. Intense, worried self-absorption, rather than panic, governs the captives. Eager to retain her dignity and resist dehumanisation, Samira continues to apply make-up and do her best with what clothing remains. Later, she begins an uneasy relationship with one of the captors.

Wisely skipping past the intricacies of Balkan politics, the film develops into a disconcerting, spooky character study. Featuring sumptuous, glacial photography by Tim Fleming, As If I Am Not Thereis faultless in its accumulation of mood.

There are, however, some problems with the rape sequence. (How could there not be?) Wilson has been careful to avoid gratuitous nudity, and her depiction of the soldiers as unexcited, rutting automatons rings true. The greater focus is, quite understandably, upon Samira’s deadened face (hence the film’s title). But the hazy perfection of the images and the scene’s very tastefulness are in danger of aestheticising the assault. It is, perhaps, all just a little too elegantly arranged.

For all that, As If I Am Not Thereremains a notably powerful debut that packs a considerable emotional punch. It’s the kind of film that gives international co-productions a good name.