wed 21/10/2020

As If I Am Not There | reviews, news & interviews

As If I Am Not There

As If I Am Not There

This cinematic reminder of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia must be seen

'As If I Am Not There': Natasha Petrovic's hugely expressive eyes tell more or less the whole story

The capture and arraignment of Ratko Mladic has brought atrocities committed in Bosnia back onto the front page. As Martin Bell used to argue, the Bosnian war struggled to hold the world’s attention even when it was going on. Two much more major conflicts, in which we have been doing the bombing rather than the peacekeeping, have since sent Bosnia plummeting down the squash ladder of important contemporary conflicts.

The capture and arraignment of Ratko Mladic has brought atrocities committed in Bosnia back onto the front page. As Martin Bell used to argue, the Bosnian war struggled to hold the world’s attention even when it was going on. Two much more major conflicts, in which we have been doing the bombing rather than the peacekeeping, have since sent Bosnia plummeting down the squash ladder of important contemporary conflicts. In the arts, WMD and Al-Qaeda have got many more creative juices flowing and box-office tills ringing. It’s as if Bosnia was not there. Which is rather what this shocking, powerful film is saying.

As If I Am Not There will get a limited release and be seen by very few cinema-goers. But if you can get to it, do. It has the arresting impact of a simple fable. A young woman full of optimism leaves home in Sarajevo to take up a temporary teaching post up in the tree-smothered mountains. Soon militia are sweeping through the valley and clearing villages. The men are all marched out of sight and shot, the women, too scared to mourn, are bussed to a holding camp where the young and presentable ones, including a girl barely older than 10, are selected for systematic rape. Samira (Natasha Petrovic) is one of them.

This is hardly a film which relies on surprise for its dramatic power

No cinematic rape – not even Robert De Niro brutalising a young Elizabeth McGovern in the back seat in Once Upon a Time in America – has been captured with more gut-wrenching directness. Samira is slung face down onto a table in an empty house and, for what feels like minutes of the film, is brutally entered by a trio of leering thugs in khaki. The scene is shot with the camera in Petrovic’s face, which seems to drain of blood by the frame. As if to connect with another living being, she focuses on a fly on the wall, the only witness to this devastating crime (apart from, of course, the viewer). And in a further act of ritual desecration, the three of them urinate on her foetal body.

thumbnail.phpThe film is based on a novel by Slavenka Drakulic, a vigorous Croatian writer and journalist who was first published in the UK before the war even started with a book of essays entitled How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (1991). The neutrally titled S – A Novel about the Balkans was published in 1999. We are never told if the aggressors are Serbs or Croats. We do know that the women in headscarves are Muslims. Juanita Wilson’s adaptation feels faithfully novelistic while also carefully filmic, and that is in large part down to the performance of Petrovic (many of the other female parts are played by amateur actors). In a script with as little dialogue as a spaghetti western (and in which the silent landscape plays as louring a role), her hugely expressive eyes tell more or less the whole story: bright and blue and dull and hollow by turns, they can be read as a barometer measuring all the pain suffered by Muslim women in the process of ethnic cleansing.

Other women cooped up with her in the loft simply bear their fate. One child dies after a suppurating crucifix is scoured into her back. When Samira is summoned by the unit captain played by Miraj Grbic (pictured above with Natasha Petrovic) as a spoil of war, rather than look for animalistic sexual release he seeks to fill a void left by the wife whose photograph he keeps by him. But he is also after some kind of redemption, even forgiveness, for the brutalising task of wiping Bosnian Muslims off his section of the map. “We do what we have to do,” he tells Samira, her as much as him, which is why she chooses to sexualise herself, wear lipstick and a pretty red dress and wrest back control of her own humanity.

The cost of this momentous decision we have already guessed at the beginning of the film, which opens on a newly born baby mewling in a hospital cot while her mother lies mutely detached from the fruit of her bleeding womb. This is hardly a film which relies on surprise for its dramatic power, but as the film edges towards its shattering end, we are invited to contemplate the question: how can a mother – and by extension a country - incubating so much trauma hope for a future free from poison? See it.

Watch the trailer for As If I Am Not There

The adaptation feels faithfully novelistic while also carefully filmic, in large part down to the performance of Petrovic

Explore topics

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters