WHEN director Juanita Wilson decided to take on her first feature film she certainly didn’t shy away from the challenge.
The Dubliner has never been afraid to take on strong subjects – no more evident than with her latest offering.
As If I Was Not There, is set during the Balkan war of the 1990s and delves into the resilience of the human spirit amidst extreme violence and upheaval.
The film, which was screened by the Irish film and Television Academy at BAFTA’s London HQ, has been chosen to represent Ireland in the Foreign Language category for the 2012 Academy Awards.
Shot primarily in the Serbo-Croatian language and filmed on location in Macedonia in 2009, it tackles the horrors of the war through the eyes of the women caught up in the conflict. It’s a compelling if uncomfortable watch.
As If I Am Not There is based on a book of the same name by Croatian writer Slavenka Drakuli, who has written extensively about crimes against women in the Bosnian War.
“I found the book in Dublin years ago,” director Wilson says. “It was compelling reading and I read it in one sitting. It showed the love and the hate of the human story. I really felt it was a story that should be told.”
Wilson claims it was the human experience behind the atrocities of Bosnia, rather than the political turmoil, that she was most interested in exploring.
The result is a film that carries few words but hits you straight in the gut. It’s visually stunning.
The film is a story of a young woman from Sarajevo whose life is shattered the day a young soldier walks into her apartment and tells her to pack her things.
Rounded up with the other women from the village and imprisoned in a warehouse in a remote region of Bosnia, she quickly learns the rules of camp life. But it’s the day she is picked out to ‘entertain’ the soldiers that the real nightmare begins.
Lead actress Natasha Petrovic, who plays the central character Samira, is central to the film’s success.
“She was the most important character to find and it took nine months of casting,” Wilson says of the search that eventually led to the discovery of the Skopje drama academy student.
“She had to be young and innocent but not naïve - smart enough to know what's going on. Pressure was high to cast the film but we still hadn’t found the right girl a week before film prep began.”
Wilson describes Petrovic’s audition as ‘extraordinary’ – and her performance in the film itself is even more so. “I was really lucky to find her,” she says.
Wilson, whose short film The Door (1998) was also Oscar nominated film, admits she was concerned about telling another nation’s deeply upsetting and personal tale of brutality and anguish.
“It’s daunting to go into other country to tell their story and the subject matter was very sensitive,” she says. “You’re coming in to tell someone else’s story.
"But with Slavenka’s book I felt I was in safe hands. I wasn't just coming in to tell my version. And sometimes it’s good to have distance and be able to step back to tell a story.”
The film contains a cruel and shocking rape scene – its two minutes on screen feels like an eternity as the unimaginable unfolds. The intensity and realism of that scene affected cast and crew profoundly during filming.
“Days before the rape scene you could feel everyone get very tense and nervous, everyone felt horrible,” Wilson says while adding that the intense sense of fear, which she says is an intrinsic theme in the book, needed to be portrayed on screen.
“What was interesting about the book is that it talks a lot about fear, how really it makes you shut down, it numbs you,” the director says.
“In the film all these women are in shock, living in this very narrow window. When you’re afraid you don't think about things like the future. That kind of trauma situation means you just don't react. They can't, it's too much for them.”
But it’s a message of hope that the audience is left with. Samira, rescued from the horrors of the war camp, is left pregnant and living as a refugee in Sweden.
“It's something that touched me deeply, there's great sadness to it all” Wilson says. “But there’s hope at the end and I love that. Even though the baby is her enemy, it's also her family and she will keep it in the end.”
Siobhán Breatnach met Dublin director Juanita Wilson, whose debut feature film As If I Was Not There is Ireland’s 2012 foreign language Oscar hope, at a special screening in London.