The Irish submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film 2011 (and just the second such submission the country has ever put forth), As if I Am Not There is the feature debut of writer/director Juanita Wilson, whose 2008 short The Door was nominated for an Oscar. Like that film—Wilson’s first—As if I Am Not There concerns itself with Eastern European issues, specifically the traumas and effects of the Bosnian War upon the country’s populace. Focusing particularly on the women held in captivity during the conflict, it sees the experiences of Sarajevo-born Samira when she is taken from a rural village by militants shortly after assuming a teaching position there.
It becomes evident relatively early in As if I Am Not Here that Wilson’s skills lie far more in the field of direction than in writing.
It becomes evident relatively early in As if I Am Not Here that Wilson’s skills lie far more in the field of direction than in writing. Her script, adapted from the novel by Slavenka Drakulić, is a structured but simplistic rendition of the particular horrors of this war, prone to bursts of forced dialogue and moments of uneasy narrative transition that detract from the impact the film might otherwise carry. The Door was a powerfully emotive piece of lamentative cinema, a depoliticised but cuttingly humanist telling of the lingering effects of the Chernobyl nuclear fallout. Its success, becoming all the more evident when contrasted with this, lay in the form in which the story was presented: save for a brief few lines of dialogue, it was a largely silent film, its emotions conveyed via visual cues. Naturally, Wilson’s dialogical skills are called to use far more so here in a feature, and unfortunately they let the film down to an extent, the full power of the material lost in the telling.
However flawed Wilson’s screenwriting may be (and it should be noted that the film’s script is by no means a bad piece of work), her direction is remarkably assured for a first time feature director. Speaking at the screening at which I saw the film, she commented on the intense expressive ability of the human face, and the fact that more often than not there is no need to show anything but the raw emotions of human physiognomy. The crucial scene of the film, the one where the audience attention is forcefully grabbed and made to confront the ideas at work here, is one in which the protagonist is led to a room and raped by three soldiers. Wilson eschews sound almost entirely in her construction of the scene, relying on the considerable strengths of actress Natasa Petrovic to convey the full horror of this character’s ordeal. It’s something of a risky move, but one which pays off massively; the scene is a moment of real brilliance on par with The Door, the definitive high point and a marvellous peak in a showcase of directorial prowess. Wilson’s focus during the scene on the minutiae of a fly’s movement along the wall combines with an earlier moment of unexpected butterfly-spotting amidst the chaos of conflict to recall Malick’s The Thin Red Line; whatever the issues that arise in As if I Am Not There’s storytelling, its direction is the consistently strong element, binding beautifully together the film as a whole.
…its direction is the consistently strong element, binding beautifully together the film as a whole.
The uneasy relationship between Wilson’s strong direction and comparably subpar writing is manifested no clearer than in the film’s concluding twenty minutes, which feel almost superficially tacked on and out of place with all which went before. This may be attributable to the scenes immediately prior to the beginning of this segment, featuring two unintentional false-endings that give the narrative the feeling of a skipping CD: hitting most of the right beats, but in all the wrong order. An oddly tiny cameo role for Stellan Skarsgård effectively summates this ending: it’s an interesting addition, but a distracting and misplaced one. It feels not so much the conclusion to the film as a beginning to an entirely unrelated one. In fact, As if I Am Not There’s epilogue—for want of a better word—almost threatens to derail the effect of all that came before. A film’s ending is vital; the last scenes we see are the ones most likely to stick with us in the immediate aftermath of the viewing experience. Again, Wilson’s direction offers strong ideas to consider, but the finale can’t help but feel superfluous and leave the film to conclude on a weak note.
For all the shortcomings of its script, never quite standing out from the pattern established by similar modern conflict films, there is enough in the quality of As if I Am Not There’s direction to allow it to gain a strong appeal and emotionally charged-relevance nonetheless. Wilson’s visual ambition may be limited by the weaknesses of her storytelling, but the incredible power of the film’s defining scene and the textured performance of Petrovic overcome the narrative issues to create an informative and oppressive work determined to bring these concepts to the forefront of social consciousness. While this is an unfortunate failure to fully live up to the potential announced with The Door, it confirms Wilson as an intriguing artist of the cinematic medium, a burgeoning talent whose name will surely be heard of again.
[notification type=”star”]73/100 ~ GOOD. For all the shortcomings of its script, never quite standing out from the pattern established by similar modern conflict films, there is enough in the quality of As if I Am Not There’s direction to allow it to gain a strong appeal and emotionally-charged relevance nonetheless.[/notification]