March isn't yet in full bloom and already this is probably one of the best, and certainly one of the most harrowing, films you'll see this year. Juanita Wilson has followed her Oscar-nominated short 'The Door' with an adaptation of Slavenka Drakulic's novel 'As If I Am Not There'. The true story is a disturbing insight into crimes, particularly against women and children, during the Bosnian War.
Through the wide eyes of Samira, an award-worthy performance by the talented, beautiful Petrovic, the real-life atrocities of this war are unleashed onto the big screen. It's April 1992 and in a flashback we see this innocent Sarajevo graduate surrounded by a loving family who are excited at her new teaching opportunity that lies ahead but also nervous about their imminent parting.
Upon arrival in a Bosnian village, she realises that she is a long way from home and that distance multiples when a group of soldiers abduct her, along with the other villagers. The men are murdered, the women and children are left to survive on a daily diet of haunting events. She protests that she is not a local but a substitute teacher however her pleas, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, fall on deaf ears. Her captors see her as just another prisoner, another woman that they can abuse and inflict the worst kinds of sexual, physical and emotional horrors upon.
The prisoners are given little food, shelter or hope and are treated like animals locked up in out-house buildings, which is preferable to the soldier's den. There warped men control their victims by raping them of everything that makes them who they are, through an unending series of visceral acts of hate.
Adjusting to this nightmare, Samira survives on her loving memories, her self-worth and hopeless hope. Given that she is on camera throughout the film, with little to say and much of her actions being reactions, Petrovic is outstanding and unforgettable. It is surprising to learn that this Macedonian is only a second year acting student and that this is her first role.
Mirroring the original source material, Wilson's script is rich in how sparse it is with only the essential dialogue remaining, leaving the focus on the terror of this war. She opens the film with upbeat traditional eastern European music, which becomes darker before disappearing as the plot develops.
Fleming's cinematography is diverse, juxtaposing spectacular panoramic views of Bosnia, Macedonia and Sweden with incredible detail of some of the deeply affecting moments of the story.
Just as 'The Door' appealed to a universal audience due in part to the lack of dialogue, hopefully this subtitled three-time IFTA winner will too. The film is a striking examination of human survival and how people live by focusing on escape, both mental and physical, at any cost. Wilson also explores the beauty of a mother's unconditional love, in spite of the crippling obstacles the war puts in her way.