As If I Am Not There Review–A Film On The Balkan War

My review of the movie, based on the *phenomenal* book S. :

Based on the 1999 novel S. by Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulic, As If I Am Not There, is a film about the mass rapes and violence against Bosnian women during the Balkan Wars of 1992-1995 [by some estimates, as many as 60,000 women were raped as part of a campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing]. It is also Ireland’s entry to the 2012 Oscars’ Foreign Language Film category.

The history of the war reads like a scene from hell, the unfathomable brutality made all the more grotesque by the fact that it happened in Europe, in modern times, and literally in front of the eyes of the international community. The systematic rape of women was so heinous that for the first time in international court history, the coordinated use of rape as a weapon of war was declared a crime against humanity, second only to genocide.

As If I Am Not There, however, is not a documentary: it is a work of fiction that is based on the accounts of the victims. Thus, it is not meant to be a compendium of atrocities or a chronology of events. Yet considering how well-documented by journalists the entire war was, one would expect that history somehow inform the film, the gravitas of what happened, and the real stories of the women should underpin the movie.

Director Juanita Wilson’s film is haunting, atmospheric, and moving. It is not easy viewing. Wilson makes the emotional narrative the crux of the film, forgoing dialogue and instead letting the actors’ muteness speak the loudest. “I wanted to focus on the emotions—for example, how Samira would feel when the soldier walked into the room.” Newcomer Natasha Petrovic turns in a stunning performance almost entirely reliant on body language. Wilson’s characters never cry—she explains that “fear induces numbness and paralysis…almost a disbelief that this is happening.” The women, locked in an abandoned hangar in the middle of nowhere, seem to have no natural solidarity amongst them, almost stupefied by the horrors they are forced to endure daily. That aspect of the film is jarring and not necessarily believable; in the scene where all the men are executed and the women marched onto buses to the camp, we see none of them say a word to each other or express emotion.

One unsettling aspect of the movie was that some of the artistic choices, while certainly giving the viewer a reprieve from the relentless, gut-wrenching brutality, seemed to somehow seek to lessen the harshness. Even the “as if I am not there” title seems to suggest the possibility of escapism as a coping mechanism—when Samira is gang raped, we see her looking at herself from outside her body. Her “relationship” with the Captain also seemed to have an implied “taking control” aspect to it, as though she was using it to save herself [not to mention that as a plot device, it was a singular event not particularly representative of most of the women’s experience]. To suggest that there was any place for woman-man dynamic as opposed to soldier-prisoner is questionable. When the other women tell her that she has “sold herself for too little,” are we to believe she had any kind of choice? What compromise has she made that involved any kind of free will on her part? This grasping for positivity or a reprieve where there is none was uncomfortable. For example, at the end of the movie, Samira decides to nurse the baby that is the product of her being raped repeatedly for months and epitomizes her utter dehumanization; it feels as though the film is grasping at some straws of redemption for the mere sake of it. In reality, the most horrible aspect of the war was how endemic and mundane evil is: the rape-centers the women were locked in were often in schools, gyms, etc. As If I Am Not There is unflinching in its portrayal of those who suffer the worst casualties of war—the civilians, but it is also the story of US. It does manage to steer clear from a voyeuristic fixation on the violence, instead focusing on the human in the midst of dehumanizing circumstances.

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