Jasmila Žbanić’s film tells the story of the Srebrenica massacre through the eyes of a UN translator powerless to save her family
A quick history lesson for the uninitiated: the Srebrenica massacre took place in Bosnia in July 1995, as Yugoslavia entered the final stages of its bloody disintegration. The Serbian military, under the command of General Ratko Mladić, captured the town of Srebrenica, despite its designation as a UN safe zone. He negotiated with the UN for the escort of the town’s citizens, most of them Bosnian Muslims, supposedly to safe territory. Mladić and his soldiers then proceeded to separate the men (many of them boys) from the women and children. Some 8700 men were then executed, in what remains the single largest act of genocide in Europe since WWII.
Writer-director Jasmila Žbanići's intense, claustrophobic drama Quo Vadis, Aida? stares directly into the face of that harrowing event and creates a film of extended distress that alights on a sense of complete helplessness. Žbanić’s formative years came during the war and her directorial career thus far has focused predominantly on the war in Bosnia and its aftermath. For this writer, born in Yugoslavia as the country disintegrated, with the events of the film taking place less than 200km from my birthplace, it's a history that is keenly felt.
Within the film itself, we principally follow the title character, Aida (Jasna Djuričić), a translator working for the UN (and therefore someone with an inside track on negotiations), as she attempts to ensure the safety of her family and escape the clutches of Mladić. Her role as a translator means she's close enough to witness the events as they happen but lacks the power to do anything about it – effectively making Aida an audience surrogate, imposing her own sense of panicked helplessness on viewers.
Djuričić brilliantly captures every flash of Aida’s fear and frustration, which only increases as the reality of the situation begins to dawn. In casting a Serbian actress as the lead (a decision that will no doubt be unpopular at home, where the current political leadership is made up of many of those who encouraged massacres like Srebrenica and now downplay its severity or outright deny it ever happened), Žbanić also underlines the fact that ethnicity is ultimately a construction imposed by those who would seek to divide us. Tellingly, she also casts Emir Hadžihafizbegović, a prolific Bosnian character actor, as a Serbian commandant.
Žbanić pulls no punches with regards to the role of the UN in the Srebrenica massacre, either, suggesting that the international and European response to the situation was an act of cowardice so great that it may well qualify as outright collaboration. At one point, a UN colonel tells Aida “we stick to the rules here,” turning an act of bureaucratic paper-pushing into something beyond the Kafkaesque and into far more disturbing territory. Elsewhere, the cinematography by Christine A. Maier deftly captures the oppressiveness of the dry Bosnian summer – so often deployed as a warm, nostalgic balm in other films from the region. Here the July heat is airless and stagnant.
Yet Žbanić also finds moments in which to pause the sense of white-knuckle anxiety that permeates the film, and simply remember who and what was lost. Faces, silent and momentarily calm; flowers, with petals yellowing; photos, awaiting the fire. There’s a note of bittersweet hope in the epilogue, focused on the children of Bosnia, growing up in the war’s shadow but yearning to be free of it.
Quo Vadis, Aida? is available on Curzon Home Cinema from 22 January.Where to watch