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No Woman's Land

As If I Am Not There (2010)

2011 Seattle International Film Festival

"As If I Am Not There" is adapted from a novel by Slavenka Drakulić about a Bosnian woman during the Balkan wars of the early '90s, although no such identifying information is supplied until the end credits. Some works of art lend themselves well to adaptations; and some stories are so powerful that they deserve to be told in every possible medium. The main question this movie raises is: Why does it exist?

Samira (Natasa Petrovic) is a pretty, cheerful young woman who leaves her parents' apartment in Sarajevo carrying only a stripy backpack for a temporary teaching job in a small village in the mountains. Shortly after she arrives, soldiers come to the village, round everyone into the main hall and lead the men outside. Shots are heard. Then buses come; and the women are taken away to an abandoned but well-guarded farm. You can guess what happens next.

Juanita Wilson is an acclaimed Irish director who made this with Irish, Macedonian and Swedish funding; and Stellan Skarsgård has a blink-and-you'll-miss-it part which is certainly done as a favor to secure the backing and international distribution. It is shot almost entirely in Macedonia, which is clearly a beautiful, unspoiled country — a sequence near the end could be used in a tourism advertisement. But the movie's otherwise unremitting horror makes this very unlikely.

Ms. Wilson's achievement is that the rape and torture of women is not used as a metaphor for anything else. What Samira and the other women in the loft endure is simply that: their own pain, their own bleeding, their own bruises, their own suffering. Much of the movie takes place in silence — which is a powerful stylistic choice. But it means that there is no explanation for what happens to Samira and the others, and no opportunity for them to cope with their suffering. The first attack on Samira is shown in its entirety, focusing mostly on her face and that of her rapists. Otherwise there is little explicit violence, which is a mercy for the audience. There is also no nudity, which must have been a mercy for Ms. Petrovic. But no such mercy is shown to Samira or anyone else.

Watching this movie brought to mind the recent New Yorker essay by Aleksandar Hemon — coincidentally a Bosnian-American — in which he relates the death of his infant daughter from a brain tumor and says the experience taught him and his wife no lesson worth knowing. Ms. Petrovic's performance, Ms. Wilson's direction and Tim Fleming's cinematography are enormous, stunning achievements. But if a movie is horrible to watch, then why watch it? To depict suffering on its own — without any meaning or any hope — is merely to inflict suffering of another kind.


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