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The traumatic wartime experiences of a young schoolmistress from Sarajevo might be almost wordlessly portrayed in “As if I Am Not There,” but rookie writer-director Juanita Wilson’s cinematic smarts ensure the film speaks forcefully and intelligently about the plight of a woman caught up in a conflict much larger than herself. Based on the book by Croatian scribe Slavenka Drakulic, and impressively lensed in gorgeous widescreen, this is a bona fide arthouse title that should turn Wilson into a name to watch. Indie distribs will find small but appreciative auds in major Euro burgs and the bicoastal U.S.

Wilson’s Oscar-nominated short “The Door” was shot in Ukraine, and in Russian, and the Ireland-born helmer here demonstrates a similar fearlessness, again tackling a topic and shooting in a language far removed from her own experiences (though universal insights into human nature are again sprinkled throughout). It’s an audacious approach to choosing her projects, which certainly arouses curiosity about what Wilson’s filmography might look like in, say, 20 years.

Beautiful and pragmatic Samira (newcomer Natasha Petrovic, luminous) moves from a middle-class life in Sarajevo with her parents and little sister to a remote countryside village. She will temporarily replace a primary school teacher there, though her pupils tell her that her predecessor will never come back. Before she’s even settled, the village is invaded by Serbian soldiers. They round up the villagers, take the femmes to a shelter and proceed to shoot the men. These horrors occur offscreen, with Wilson keeping her camera inside the hangar, glued to the faces of the terrified women, and only the sound of gunfire suggesting what is happening outside.

The female prisoners are then moved to an improvised prison camp, where the striking Samira is singled out and violently gang-raped. The harrowing, five-minute sequence(which likely inspired the title) is not only hard to watch but — in a directorial feat of derring-do — shown to be so hard for Samira to endure that in one shot she looks at herself being raped from a distance, as if the events are so shocking that her brain cannot process they are actually happening to her and not to someone else.

Together with some peers, Samira is placed in a locked attic they can leave only when the men want sex. In defiance, Samira dolls herself up, “not for them,” she explains, “but for me” — clearly to keep what little of her dignity is left. Though abused by soldiers seemingly without a moral compass, the schoolmistress’s feelings toward men grow more complex when a kind-hearted officer (Fedja Stukan) takes an interest in her.

Wilson doesn’t concern herself with the specifics of the ethnic conflict, opting instead to address much larger questions of wartime behavior; as the pic proceeds, its concrete Balkan-wars origins feel increasingly tangential. The terse, often sparse dialogue relates almost exclusively to concrete matters, but between the lines explores such issues as the nature of relationships, love and compassion, and what unequal power does to them. Impressively, Wilson probes different gray areas without ever diminishing the harrowing experiences of the women, and though only Samira is a fully rounded character, her peers are never cliches.

Only minor hiccups in the screenplay are the fact that none of the women seem to resist their captors even once, and the film’s bookends set in Sweden feel like the cinematic equivalent of an afterbirth rather than a birth itself.

Tech package, on what must have been a modest budget, is aces, with the widescreen work of d.p. Tim Fleming (“Once,” Wilson’s “The Door”) especially noteworthy for its impeccable framing.

As if I Am Not There

Ireland

  • Production: An Octagon Films, Wide Eye Films production, in association with Sektor Film, StellaNova Film, with participation of WMG Film, Film i Vast. Produced by James Flynn, Nathalie Lichtenthaeler, Karen Richards. Executive producer, Winfriend Hammacher. Co-producers, Vladimir Anastasov, Lena Rehnberg, Tomas Eskilsson. Directed, written by Juanita Wilson, based on the book by Slavenka Drakulic.
  • Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Tim Fleming; editor, Nathan Nugent; music, Kiril Dzajkovski; production designer, Bujar Mucha; costume designer, Zaklina Krstevska; sound (Dolby Digital), Tsvestan Kadyski; casting, Fatima Grahic, Nela Vitoshevic. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Discovery), Sept. 12, 2010. Running time: 109 MIN.
  • With: With: Natasha Petrovic, Fedja Stukan, Jelena Jovanova, Sanja Buric, Irina Apelgren, Stellan Skarsgard. (Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Swedish, English dialogue.)
  • Music By: