What does it take to become a monster?
Sitting in a darkened theatre last night in an isolated film building on campus of National University of Ireland Galway, I felt tears stream toward my chin and wondered. The girl… the woman with the striking green eyes and withered cheek bones stared into a broken mirror and applied lipstick with trembling fingers. There was a steely determination in her gaze.
She had hit the bottom. The lowest state of human existence. She had been contained in a “rape room” of a Bosnian war camp for weeks–living from hour to hour with five other women and a tortured young girl. She had witnessed countless mechanical murders. She had been gang raped and then urinated upon and beat up–desensitized and left to look at what she had become from outside of her own body.
The landscape outside of her dirty window is barren and vast. There is nothing in sight but camouflaged jeeps, machine guns, and the heartless bodies of men.
The other women stand in the dilapidated bathroom doorway and watch her make herself up. They sneer. They tell her she looks ridiculous. She declares that she is not an animal. She is a woman, and she wants to feel like herself.
Shoulders back, the door to the hell hole opens. She strides out with eerie confidence behind a soldier with downcast eyes. She is taken to the home of the captain–to a relationship of food, wine, and a line between sex and rape. She is still a prisoner, but he calls her “teacher.”
He treats her as a human–convincing himself he has a shred of dignity left in this war torn world where he has committed so many acts of animal cruelty. Their relationship is one of exchange. To survive, she accepts isolation from the women she has suffered with. She becomes impregnated with a child that will become a tortured internal conflict (and symbolic one as well) when she finally escapes. Looking her dead in the eye, cupping her birdlike neck between his iron hands, the captain who has taken to this woman tells her “We are the same. I do what I have to to survive. So do you.”
He convinces himself he is human.
In every scene of this striking and deeply disturbing film by Irish director Juanita Wilson, the audience wonders how this sort of injustice is possible in a modern world. We see a girl who leaves her home city on a bus–full of idealism as she journeys to become a school teacher in a remote village of Bosnia. We know she thinks she will change the world. She will, just not in the way she thinks.
We can all identify with her upward glance through the bus window. Her headphone clad ears inevitably wondering about what adventures will unfold in the months before her–contributing chapters to her life story.
She could not have imagined the horror that would be thrust upon her when the village was raided. Every man shot. Another bus ride to a camp of canvas tents and the terrifying beckoning of a soldier’s finger: “You. Come with me.”
Wilson takes us through two hours of pained faces, survival, and gut-wrenching scenes with little to no dialogue. We live this girl’s story. We do not enjoy ourselves, but we are shaken to the core. We are given no background to the war. We experience only a woman’s place in a war representing every war that has come before it. The objectification of women as weapons of war that has characterized history. We are left to wander home breathlessly to our lap top computers–cloaked in seemingly undeserved privilege as we Google “Bosnian Conflict,” “war camps,” and the title of the film.
When we listen to the director as she speaks to us after the screening of As if I am not There, she reveals that this was her intention. She tells us about the 1999 novel she worked from– the true stories recorded unflinchingly by Slavenka Drakulić.
How did they live through it? Could I live through it? Would I be resourceful enough to harness my femininity to survive?
What turned those men into monsters? In all monsters, is there a shred of humanity? Are we innately good or evil? Why hadn’t I heard about this in my history courses growing up? What else is going on that we don’t know about in our protected bubbles?
The questions bounced between my ears as I crossed the roaring waves of the River Corrib in the dark.
In her final comments, Juanita Wilson told us that she intended the film’s ambiguous ending to be filled with hope. She told us that she wants to believe that our capacity to love is greater than our capacity to hate.
I want to believe her.