By Tim Kroenert
17 February 2022
Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Žbanić’s filmography traces the scars of her country’s troubled recent history. Her 2006 debut Grbavica explored how the events of the Bosnian War continued to shape the lives of women in modern day Sarajevo. The young lovers who lead her 2010 follow-up On the Path are similarly haunted by traumatic memories of the war. Žbanić’s most recent film, Quo Vadis, Aida? takes an even more direct approach, depicting events that for her are literally close to home.
Its focus is the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in which more than 8000 Muslim men and boys were executed by the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska (the VRS). Some 30,000 people had been displaced from their homes and fled to Srebrenica, a United Nations protected zone. But the UN proved either ill-equipped or ill-prepared to help them. In an interview published by the Council of Europe in 2020, Žbanić said at the time she was living under siege in Sarajevo, just a few hours away.
“It is a tragedy that took my heart and soul,” she said. “The story of Srebrenica is an incredible drama of human beings that this institution [the UN] failed to protect. The more I dug into it, the more I was shocked that it was possible that it could happen in modern-day Europe.”
To explore this fraught terrain, the film adopts the perspective of Aida (Jasna Đuričić), a local teacher now working as an interpreter for the UN’s Dutch representatives. In this role Aida sees both sides of the coin. She shares the pain and plight of her countrymen, while serving as mouthpiece for the compromised diplomacy of the UN representatives. At first she has little choice but to trust that the good intentions of these would-be protectors will lead to good outcomes.
Her faith wanes as the VRS begins to bus away the thousands who have come to Srebrenica seeking asylum, with promises to protect them, all with the UN’s assent. Disturbingly, in this process fathers, husbands and sons are forcibly separated from the women who love them. Aida foresees the horror to come, and her focus turns to using her UN status to try to shield her own husband and teenage sons. But it’s a race against time, and Aida may have misjudged how far her privileges extend.
Nominated for an Oscar at last year’s Academy Awards, Quo Vadis, Aida? has been a long time coming to Australian cinemas. It is well worth viewing on a big screen: immersive and virtually documentary-like in its sense of realism and “in their shoes” authenticity. Of course, this is not a happy episode in history. The film’s final act is harrowing, and its denouement emotionally devastating. Its telling of these specific events is a reminder of the human cost of all conflicts.
Quo Vadis, Aida? is screening at Cinema Nova.