In July of 1995, the Bosnian city of Srebrenica was invaded by a Serbian militia, despite it being declared a “safe zone” by the United Nations and despite the threat of airstrikes from UN Peacekeeping Forces. The resulting genocide saw the massacre of over 8,000 ethnic Muslim men and boys, and tens of thousands more displaced until the end of the Bosnian War. Now, in a co-production of 12 different countries, and officially submitted by Bosnia and Herzegovina, Quo Vadis, Aida? takes that large-scale tragedy and distills it to the most simple and universally relatable context, a mother trying to protect her family. In addition to being on the Academy’s shortlist for International Feature, it was nominated yesterday for Best Non-English Language Film and Best Director at the BAFTAs, and deservedly so.
In a commanding lead role, Jasna Đuričić stars as the titular Aida, a translator working for the UN during the war. Her clientele consists of the UN envoy trying to contain the situation, staffed primarily by Dutch soldiers who speak English. If nothing else, this makes the film accessible to worldwide audiences, because a good chunk of the dialogue is in English and contextualized by Aida in her professional capacity. From the very first scene her struggle becomes apparent, as she has to interpret for both Colonel Thom Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh from The Broken Circle Breakdown and The Zookeeper’s Wife) and for Srebrenica’s terrified mayor (Ermin Bravo) as the Serbian troops advance on the city. Aida has to maintain a professional detachment from the proceedings, translating only in literal and direct terms, remaining calm while the tempers of the men flare, despite the fact that it is also her hometown under siege. In the face of institutional failure and bureaucratic red tape, she must maintain her neutrality at the risk of her job, and by extension, her safety.
When Karremans cannot make good on the military ultimatums presented to the Serbs, the town is overrun, forcing Aida’s husband (Izudin Bajrović) and teenage sons (Boris Ler and Dino Bajrović) to flee with the rest of the townsfolk for the UN enclave in hopes of protection. A few thousand refugees get into the base while the rest wait outside, nervous for their lives, including Aida’s family.
It is at this point that the film’s Latin title takes on its core meaning. “Quo vadis?” literally means, “Where are you going?” and the rest of the film focuses on Aida running all over the compound in an attempt to gain her family’s security while also fulfilling her duty for her own sake. This is where Đuričić really shines, as she becomes increasingly stymied and the Serbs increasingly run roughshod over the Dutchbat leadership’s feckless diplomacy skills. She has to maintain this balance of professional and personal passion against a ticking clock, and she does some amazing work.
It takes an extreme amount of care to make something as horrible as genocide seem intimate, but director Jasmila Žbanić does an admirable job at keeping things focused on Aida and her family, while refusing to ignore the human tragedy unfolding around them. As men are pulled from their wives and quietly marched to their slaughter, Žbanić keeps the frame tight, putting the audience in an almost POV position to internalize and react just as Aida would to the horrors of civil war. No better is this illustrated than in a brief exchange between Aida and one of the Serbian soldiers who recognizes her as his grade school teacher. It’s absolutely tragic how pleasantly they can have a conversation as old acquaintances and yet still have the underlying threat that, as a Muslim, the soldier seeks to murder her sons, his former classmates and friends. We often hear somewhat romanticized accounts of our Civil War and the idea of brother against brother, cousin against cousin, well this is the Bosnian equivalent, and it only happened 25 years ago.
I will admit that by the third act, things started to get a little silly with just how badly Aida was being blocked from all sides. As the base is being evacuated, she tries to get her husband and sons on a list of protected individuals with the UN, yet she’s stopped at every turn, particularly from Karremans and his deputy, Major Rob Franken (Raymond Thiry), saying that if they give her special treatment they have to give it to everybody. In a vacuum, that may be true, but in practical terms, it’s not. All it takes is the stroke of a pen or a few keys, and innocent lives are saved in a gesture of gratitude towards someone who’s made their jobs easier. It gets even more frustrating because it feels like they’re trying to be sticklers for the rules, even though the Serbs have disobeyed every peaceful request and are murdering people in open daylight. Clearly following the rules didn’t work before, so why bother now? What’s to be gained?
Perhaps this is intentional, as a way to demonstrate just how inept the UN was in this incident – a contention upheld by the Hague years later – but given how much intelligence and agency Aida’s given throughout the film, it’s a bit odd that she herself never points this out. It’s also strange that she doesn’t try to play a trump card or two, like telling the Serbs that these men are all Muslims dressed as UN troops to put their lives in danger as a threat to get her way. She’s shown to be incredibly resourceful, but when the script calls for her to be out of ideas, she simply is, and I’m not sure it’s to the film’s benefit to do that. Add in some almost slapstick Murphy’s Law moments like an ID card printer being broken right when she needs to use it, and it starts to take the sting out of what is otherwise a suspenseful and tragic dramatization of modern history.
But in the more human moments, as Aida swings between being a mother and an essential worker, the film absolutely sings. This was a moment of the worst of humanity largely unseen by a world on the cusp of the Internet Age, and it’s to the service of all that stories like these get told. The fact that it can be done in such an intimate way is the mark of some truly great storytelling and character development. I certainly hope the world gets to take a look at it going forward.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you ever studied the Bosnian War? What lengths would you go to in order to save your family? Let me know!