As if I Am Not There Interview with the director Juanita Wilson

As If I Am Not There is an award winning movie from Irish director Juanita Wilson, whose previous movie

Her latest film tells the story of a young woman from Sarajevo whose life is shattered the day a soldier walks into her home and tells her to pack her things. She’s imprisoned in a warehouse where she quickly learns the rules of camp life.

Did an Oscar nomination for your previous movie ‘The Door’ bring many changes to your career?

A: It was absolutely fantastic to be nominated for the Oscar. It completely came out of the blue. It was so reassuring in so many ways – that you could make a film set in Kiev that somehow ends up being genuinely picked up by The Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] and being shortlisted and recognised in that way. It was everything you could ever wish for as a first time filmmaker, it was extraordinary really. It was very helpful because, through that, they showed all five short films throughout America, so we had access to huge audiences that short films normally never would. I really was so delighted. It was incredible.

What drew you to making ‘As If I Am Not There’?

A: The book had certain elements, that felt very true, that I hadn’t come across before – that fear produces a kind of numbness rather than adrenaline and that in certain situations like this, there is not a natural solidarity between people; that everyone just puts their head down and hopes that the bad thing won’t happen to them. It gave me a greater understanding of how events like this could happen, but also how an individual could survive them and there are many many ways that the character tries to survive the things that happen. For me, it felt like a story that took you right through the darkest things that we do to each other, but also brings you back to brings you back up to some kind of hope for the future. I liked the way it was structured.

It feels like a very personal story, and you wrote the screenplay. How challenging was that?

A: The screenplay was challenging to write – not just for the subject – but because I felt the book did such a good job. In the book, obviously, you can be in the head of the character and really understand everything. As the character goes through it she can understand what she feels, what she thinks, what she notices. In film you can’t do that – I knew I didn’t want a voice over because it would be too much, so you have to tell everything by what you show on screen, so it was frustrating because I felt I could never do justice to the complexity of the stuff that’s in the book, that the film can’t carry. The power of film is that it can have a different emotional impact so I hope that the trade-off is that you provide the audience with an experience that’s different to the book.

The minimal dialogue in the film was obviously a choice that you made. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

A: I suppose I would really believe, where possible, to just show things in pictures and that dialogue is only necessary if it helps the story. This almost could have been a silent film. I remember when we read the book, James Flynn – my producer – said he could almost see it as a silent film. It’s all really her journey; because she is an observer – we see it through her eyes. That’s one reason. Maybe also because I’m not from there, therefore I am writing in English, and probably a lot of the dialogue would sound terrible anyway [laughs], so it’s probably a good thing that there is not too much dialogue. I guess, in those situations where there is a lot of fear, people aren’t really communicating in that way. It’s just looks, it’s just impressions and clues and signs, by and large. I think there was probably a little bit more dialogue in the script and we probably cut that out as well [laughs]. I didn’t plan it, but the last line in the film is Stellan’s [Skarsgard] line about her family, that kind of reverberates with the last scene in a way.

How do you hope audiences will respond to the film?

A: I think it would be great if people were brave enough to come and watch it because it is obviously challenging to watch a film like this, but in the same way that the book completely opened my mind and gave me an insight into how all of these things can happen, I would hope that people would be curious to come to the subject with an open mind and also to learn ways that we can survive these difficult experiences and to come away with a feeling of hope, that despite all the awful things that happen we still have enough love in our hearts to over come this. For me that is really important. At the end of the day it is a positive film, it is an uplifting film and I think that is really important – that if you are asking an audience to see something, that you are leaving them with hope.

Words – Brogen Hayes

As If I’m Not There is now showing in Irish cinemas