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Interview with director Juanita Wilson

Director Juanita Wilson won the Film Award of the Council of Europe (FACE), presented in scope of Human Rights in Cinema competition with her film AS IF I AM NOT THERE (Ireland, Bosnia, 2010). I interviewed with Juanita Wilson at the Marmara Taksim Hotel in Taksim Square on the 20th floor with a stunning view of Istanbul surrounding us. Juanita spoke passionately about her film that has now traveled around the world and which has even provoked change in Bosnia to recognize rape as a war crime for the first time. Here Juanita speaks about her groundbreaking film and the power of cinema.

AS IF I AM NOT THERE is a dramatic realist film about the Bosnian War and the rape crimes that took place. The main character is Samira is a schoolteacher in Sarajevo who lives and works in the countryside while the war breaks out. When the Serbian soldiers take over the village, she experiences a harrowing act of rape, a war crime act that threatens to rob her of her humanity and which leaves her struggling to survive.

ME: Congrats on getting the award. Do you want to make a comment on what the film is about and how you went about getting it made?

JUANITA: The film is based on true stories based on a book by Slavenka Drakulic called ‘As If I am Not There’ and it follows the story of a young woman in Sarajevo who goes to her first job, which is a teaching job in the mountains and while she’s there the war breaks out and she gets caught up in the war and various events that really force her to find her own humanity and find her own ways of surviving horrific incidents without going insane and without losing her humanity and at the very end she faces the dilemma where she has to decide really in terms of her future whether she has enough love in her heart to forgive and move on and to face what happened or whether to just forget and walk away. And that dilemma is central to what the film is about.

ME: How difficult was the film to get produced? Was it a long journey?

JUANITA: Yeah, I think I first came across the book in a book shop in Dublin about 10 or 11 years ago at least and at the time we optioned it and I was hoping to produce it but as the years unfolded I got more and more involved and ended up writing it myself because I just knew what I loved about the book and I just wanted to put that down on paper first and then in the intervening years I made a short film, THE DOOR (2008) which got enough recognition I guess that it seemed like it would be possible for me to direct a feature film so kind of by default it ended up coming around to me again. So, I was absolutely delighted because I’ve been so involved in it. I mean, I knew every word, every syllable of the script so it was quite amazing and that’s why it’s very emotional for me when it wins and award because it’s been such a long journey to get here and a really interesting journey.

ME: And this must feel really exhilarating as your first feature film to win a best director award.

JUANITA: Yes, it is. It’s just incredible.

ME: Where did the film premier?

JUANITA: It opened in Toronto. And it’s traveled to Cairo before Christmas which was amazing. And it was in Haifa and Palm Springs in America and here now and it’s lovely to watch it with different cultures and different languages and the response is pretty uniform. It seems to impact on people emotionally which is wonderful.

ME: I’m sure. This is a universal situation.

JUANITA: It is. Unfortunately.

ME: So, is this a Bosnian film or Irish?

JUANITA: Well, it’s an Irish film in the sense that it was developed in Ireland and I’m Irish and the producer is Irish so I would consider it an Irish film about a Bosnian story. But it’s not trying to describe the war by any means because by being Irish I couldn’t do that accurately so it’s reall just following one human story.

ME: Last night when you won the award you were very moved. Can you tell us what your hopes were to achieve with this film and how you feel that you’ve gotten somewhere with it and where you hope to go with it?

JUANITA: I mean, I found the book so moving. I read it in one sitting and it just really offered an insight into some of those experiences that I hadn’t understood before. And I remember being so devastated when the first accounts came out from the war camps that women were being held in rape rooms and that nobody could stop it. I just wanted to understand really how it would feel to survive it, what resources you would need to survive that. And the fact that a human being could do that to another human being I just found beyond belief so the aim the film I guess is to try and, naïve though it sounds, to make sure that doesn’t happen again. You know, that if people watch it and realize what happened and see it, you know because it’s not very visible. It’s happened in all wars and it’s usually portrayed in the background of a war film. You know, some girl gets dragged off in the background screaming and you know, but it’s just happened to so many women. And in that war, they reckon up to 60,000 women were raped as part of genocide. So, I would hope that by making it visible people would really consider this and consider the lives of the women that are so shattered and the shame they live with that continues for the rest of their whole life and particularly refugees and people that come and live in other western cities and to maybe understand a little bit of what they might have been through. But what I loved most about the book was that it starts and ends with the birth of a baby and for me that just gives hope which I think is really important so you’re not just asking people to sit through very difficult and grim circumstances but you are at the end offering them hope that the human spirit is strong enough and has enough love to survive without turning it into hate and giving up.

ME: This tragic treatment of males for women throughout history, the perpetrators don’t realize they are hurting themselves in a vicious cycle, breeding hatred, despair and hopelessness. It’s like a snake eating itself.

JUANITA: Yeah, and what I wanted to show as well was the complexity of a war situation like that is that she does whatever she feels she has to to survive but also a lot of the men who become soldiers, their lives are destroyed as well and a lot of those, they have no choice either. And I think that’s important as well to understand that it’s not just simplistically male and female roles but that is really the circumstances. And I think that’s why war stories are always so dramatically fertile because they really are a case where a human being is tested. And like none of us know unless I think we are in those circumstances that are evil unless we are tested. I guess at the back of my mind there’s always that fear of what I would discover in myself if I were in those circumstances. I mean, if someone puts a gun behind you and tells you if you don’t shoot you’ll be shot… I don’t know. What do you do? So, I guess the film is not trying to moralize heavily but to portray that experience so that somebody in the audience maybe has a sense of how that might be. And the rape scene is similar. It’s trying to show how that might feel from the woman’s perspective rather than just showing what happened. And I think that’s what really interests me in film, is to portray the experience and to create an emotional experience for the audience.

ME: Since this is taking place in Bosnia, can you tell your feelings about the situation of trafficking in Eastern Europe to Western Europe right now and the sex slave industry.

JUANITA: It’s just shocking and appalling. I just cannot understand how men could do this knowing these women have no choice in the matter. And it’s interesting that in Sweden they prosecute the men and in Ireland they’re trying to introduce that. I think it’s a good think but it’s getting a lot of resistance. I just think it’s shocking. There’s a lot of that in London.

ME: You mentioned that your film has provoked a law to be passed about rape being accepted as a war crime for the first time? Can you elaborate on that?

JUANITA: Yes, in Bosnia. Because a lot of the women spoke out and chose not to hide. A lot of the women spoke out and came forward and gave testimony. So, at the tribunal it has been recognized as a war crime for the first time ever. Rape before was never really recognized, it was just considered something that happens to a woman. But now it’s actually officially a war crime. And the first war criminals were tried and convicted after Bosnia which is absolutely amazing. I don’t know if you saw the film. Things hopefully are beginning to change a little bit. But there’s two outstanding war criminals in Serbia that haven’t been handed over yet and really I think until they are it’s really difficult for the people of Bosnia to move forward and for healing to take place.

ME: So, how does it feel to be here in Istanbul winning the prize?

JUANITA: It’s extraordinary. Istanbul is a city I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. I’ve heard so much about it. I love the eastern and western culture mixed together. It’s a little bit like Sarajevo and to have a wonderful mix and tolerance it’s fantastic. But to be here and up for that award is a real honor. It’s wonderful to have your film considered to have a value beyond entertainment and I really didn’t expect to win it at all. In fact, I though PRESS had won the award, as it won every other prize, so that’s why I was so, I couldn’t actually believe it. It struck me how powerful cinema really is. And how amazing it has been to be involved with a project like this and trusted with Slavenka’s book and trusted with the whole subject, I just felt really humbled you know. As a human being. And absolutely honored and I hope that it will inspire people to continue and to take on strong stories and to give people voices and to know that their voices can be heard. It is wonderful that people are interested out there.

ME: Is there any experience while making the film that you’d like to share that kind of jumps to mind? [Juanita laughs, yes.]

JUANITA: It was very difficult making the film just because it was my first feature film. Even though I had more or less the same team around me from my short. You just go out there in the morning and you don’t know even what you don’t know. So, you go out there in this complete haze and hope that your planning is right and you follow your instincts. I guess that’s the thing. Follow your instincts. That’s why you’ve no idea whether its right or wrong and it’s so wonderful to get feedback when the film was made, from the audience and see that the choices that you made and the impact that they’ve had on people because it’s very much learning as you go. But we had a lot of fun as you go, even though the subject was difficult. There was a really good team spirit and a lot of laughing in the evenings driving home. That was great. But we shot it in Macedonia, Sarajevo and Sweden so in that sense it was quite difficult. But the thing I loved most was going into countries like Macedonia, a very little country I knew nothing about, and you’re a guest of the nation and people really take you in and you learn about their lives and their culture and it’s an absolute honor. It’s lovely, even if you’ve never made a film. That part of it, trusting people and building relationships and creating something together. It’s extraordinary but it’s difficult at times. I hope I would know more if I ever do it again. I hope I’ve learnt a lot. The hardest thing I’ve found is to say ‘no’. Because your instinct is to always say ‘yes, this will work, okay we’ll go with that’. But actually, there comes a point where you will damage things if you agree to things so you have to say ‘no’ to the wrong cast or ‘no’ to the wrong location and be strong. And also getting used to the idea that there’s nobody else to consult. Every decision you have to look into your own heart and go, ‘black or white, black or white?’ And that’s hard as well because I like to consult by nature and discussing with people and sometimes that can be viewed as indecision and I think particularly as a woman who works like that you can be seen to be indecisive but it’s not. It’s like, ‘I have an idea but you might have a better idea so if you tell me your idea we can discuss and maybe we’ll use it and if not, then…’ But it’s a nice way of working and that’s why I’m lucky with the team that I have because they really support that and they don’t try to take over and I think that’s the most important thing for a first time director…to find a team who are coming to it because of the level of the script and are protecting the script above everything. You know, people aren’t going this way and that and arguing. For me, I can’t work in that kind of environment. It’s not good for me so that level of support I think is very important.

ME: You’re inspiring me now to direct my own film!

JUANITA: But really, somewhere I heard that making a film is like being a good mother or a good parent. Your job is to look after the film and the people around you, to bring out the best in everybody, to find ways to thrive, to kind of look ahead and foresee any problems that might arise and work against those, but that’s your job and I thought that’s a kind of positive model rather than the director as the kind of man leader who has all the answers. You can go out there and say, ‘I don’t know. Let’s find the answer together’ and trust that you will find the right answer. You don’t have to know everything. You just have to know what you’re trying to do and what your material is and I just thought that was a lovely model and it takes a lot of pressure away because it’s not you performing. It’s you coming together and trying to make the best the film can possibly be and your job as director is to let everybody do their best work and trust each other. So, I found that really helpful and it has worked very much with the people I worked with.

ME: So, do you know what you are doing next?

JUANITA: At the moment I’m almost finished now with the adaptation of another book but it’s written by an American author called Daniel Woodrell. He’s a fantastic writer. It’s very different. It’s got a lot of humor and a lot of clever dialogue about this man who is aging and he goes back to his family that he abandoned years ago. It’s about these characters facing big decisions. I kind of chose it because it’s so different. I want a new challenge in a new way.

ME: Well, congratulations on your film! And for your award! Hope to see the film get distributed worldwide as it’s such an important topic and should not be missed! Thanks Juanita.

Interview conducted and transcribed by Vanessa McMahon, April 23, 2011

Juanita Wilson accepts her award

AS IF I AM NOT THERE, interview with Juanita Wilson



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