As If I Am Not There (15)
The horrors of the Bosnian war of 1992-1995 have provided rich pickings for several filmmakers, from our own Michael (Welcome to Sarajevo) Winterbottom through to Serbia’s Srdjan (Pretty Village, Pretty Flame) Dragojevic.
Now Irish producer-turned-director Juanita Wilson has delivered another devastating take on the conflict seen through the eyes of one young woman thrust into that pitch-black heart of darkness.
Natasa Petrovic plays Samira, a happy-go-lucky lass who leaves her parents’ home in Sarajevo and travels to a remote village to teach the kids in the local school. She has been there only a matter of days before armed militiamen round up the people, separate the sexes, shoot the men folk and put the women to work.
Samira, a pretty girl, is kept apart along with some younger women and a child. Their fate is to be the sexual playthings of the Serb gunmen.
Wilson bases her film on the book of the same name by Slavenka Drakulić and does not flinch from illustrating Samira’s experiences. One particularly nasty sequence sees her attacked by three men. The culmination of the assault is a half naked girl lying on a filthy floor as her triumvirate of rapists complete their fun – by urinating on her.
Samira’s plight – and that of her fellow prisoners – is given added weight and depth by the power of Petrovic’s gaze. Much of the action is seen through her horrified eyes. But there is a moment of epiphany in which Samira recognises that to survive she must retain her humanity. And her femininity. Her acceptance of what must be done to ensure her survival is shocking in its simplicity.
Like Elem Klimov’s Come and See, As If I Am Not There is an odyssey into evil. It is also a story of fortitude and resilience with a stand-out performance from Petrovic. Fedya Stukan also shines as the militia commander who enlists Samira as his plaything and who, like Dirk Bogarde to Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter, starts to feel empathy for the girl he is regularly raping.
This is an extraordinary film – a harrowing testament to man’s inhumanity to (wo)man, and of an all-too recent period of history that can never be repeated. Can it?