Director: Juanita Wilson
Starring: Natasha Petrovic, Fedja Stukan, Stellan Skarsgård
Duration: 109 min.
Samira is a modern schoolteacher in Sarajevo who takes a job in a small country village just as the war is beginning to ramp up. When Serbian soldiers overrun the village, shoot the men and keep the women as laborers and sex objects, Samira is subjected to the basest form of treatment imaginable.
As If I Am Not There is the debut feature film from Irish director Juanita Wilson, who's 2008 short film The Door was nominated for an Academy Award. This is Ireland's official submission to the 84th (2012) Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.
A harrowing film that looks at wartime atrocities from the eye of the victims, As If I Am Not There is based on true stories from survivors of the Bosnian war and follows Samira (Natasa Petrovic) a young schoolteacher who leaves her home in Sarajevo to accept a substitute position in a remote village shortly before the start of the war. Things go well for the idealistic Samira at first, settling into the village and her job nicely, until one morning she wakes up to the entire village being rounded up by Serbian soldiers. The start of a long and brutal ordeal where she is forced to do unspeakable things and make the hardest choices in order to survive.
Wilson handles the material in an interesting way. No background or reasoning for the war are given, thus avoiding the expected heavy political message and turning it into a basic human rights story. The screenplay also uses very little dialogue, relying on framing the camera efficiently to show rather than tell the events. In fact this could have almost been a silent film in the way the images do all the storytelling. This stylistic choice works well to relay Samira's and indeed those around her's terrible experiences in a frank but non exploitative manner.
However, the film suffers from a lack of depth in the characters, although Natasa Petrovic delivers a brave and capable performance, we never truly get into Samira's head to really understand who she is. Also no attempt is made to humanize any of the rest of the cast of supporting characters, they are all a blur of helpless victims or evil soldiers. The film also loses its way near the end with some unnecessary sidetracking that did not have the intended dramatic impact. Though watch out for a brief cameo from Stellan Skarsgård.
Juanita Wilson's first full length effort tackles a powerful and compelling subject with a delicate hand. She shows a talent for crafting a complex and evocative scene with minimal words. However, it is at times very uncomfortable viewing, and lacks dramatic polish. Worth seeing, but I would be surprised if it makes the Academy shortlist in an unusually strong year.
— Bonjour Tristesse