Wednesday 17 January 2018

Movies: As if I am not there ***

(16, limited release)

Paul Whitington

Juanita Wilson's As If I am Not There won practically every award going at the Irish Film and Television Awards the other week, and her dark and gruelling wartime drama is certainly very well put together. The war in question is the extremely nasty Bosnian conflict of the mid-90s, when ethnic tensions erupted in an orgy of medieval violence.

Natasha Petrovic is Samira, a young Muslim woman from Sarajevo who takes a job as a schoolteacher in a remote mountain village just as the conflict is escalating. She's only been in her post a couple of days when Bosnian-Serb militiamen sweep into town, kill all the men and frogmarch all the women off to a remote camp.

Here Samira and the other young women are confronted by their worst nightmare, because the soldiers systematically use them as sex slaves and subject them to constant and unimaginable humiliation. I say unimaginable but in fact we're shown practically everything, from protracted rape scenes to an often-flashed-back-to moment when Samira is urinated on by the men who have just violated her. Some of the women are beaten so badly they die, and Samira survives by prettifying herself to the extent that she attracts the attention of the camp captain, who adopts her as his own and treats her with relative gentleness.

The Balkan conflicts of the 90s provided the darkest moments in European history since the Second World War, and Wilson's film unstintingly depicts the collective madness of that time. Exactly what is gained by doing this, though, I am not quite sure, and we are given little in the way of character development or nuance that might make the endurance test of watching all this worthwhile.

Even Samira remains a mystery: she's good at suffering, but who she is, apart from a kind of martyr, never becomes clear. And there's a flatness to Wilson's film that makes it feel more like a harrowing documentary than a properly structured drama.

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