The Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić was 21 years old and living in Sarajevo at the time of the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre. When the Serbian Army of Republika Srpska invaded the town of Srebrenica, which had previously been declared a safe area by the United Nations, the Dutch soldiers representing them remained useless and callous. Due to an ethnic and religious conflict, approximately 8,000 Bosnian men and boys were executed.
Žbanić’s most recent film, “Quo Vadis, Aida?”, (nominated for this year’s Academy Award for best international feature film) reckons with the failure of one of the world’s most powerful institutions. It’s a truly devastating film that lingers in the viewer’s mind for days after watching. One cannot help but feel the agony in the way it depicts both the offending military leaders and the bureaucracy of the United Nations.
“Quo vadis” is a Latin phrase that approximately translates to “where are you going” or “what are you doing.” These questions are all too agonizing for the protagonist Aida (Jasna Đuričić), a civilian of Srebrenica working as a translator for the UN. She has to translate information about airstrikes and military attacks to the townspeople while struggling to protect her family. Shockingly, despite the Serbs’ hostility, the UN does nothing but enable them. As the Serbs continually move in on the U.N. and murder civilians, the Dutch officers never once fire back. Against all protocol, the Dutch Colonel allows armed enemies into their base, after earlier stating that they cannot retaliate because, unbelievably, that would anger the Serbs.
“Quo Vadis, Aida?” slowly and constantly builds suspense fueled by sheer terror. Much of the film focuses on the connection between refugees inside the UN base. The only uplifting aspect of the film is seeing that life endures in the face of impending destruction. Within the base, we witness a baby being born, as dreams of Serbo-Croatian rock music and words of affirmation abound in all sorts of relationships. A sense of kinship grows throughout the film as Aida establishes herself as a bold matriarch and the bonds between neighbors in the base grow.
Jasna Đuričić offers an impactful, charitable performance. Juxtaposed against each war-waging man, and combined with the female director’s bravura, Aida brings strength to womanhood. When she slams a door on a couple of Dutch officers who refuse to add her husband and sons’ names to a list of people protected by the UN, the camera halts on Aida’s paralyzing glare. In that moment, the officers, and the audience, realize that she is a force that demands attention.
However, what makes “Quo Vadis, Aida?” truly unforgettable is its sincerity. Unlike most war films, the protagonist ultimately fails to achieve heroism. She is unable to save a single life and is continually forced to spread the UN’s false assurances. In contrast to staples of the genre such as “Schindler’s List,” “Apocalypse Now” and “1917,” “Quo Vadis, Aida?” does not depict a grand battle scene, or even a single drop of blood. There’s no incredible adventure, just one mother’s desperate pleas for help. The film doesn’t glorify the spectacle of war. It is authentic and reverent toward the dead.
That doesn’t mean Žbanić shies away from the atrocities of the massacre. The most sickening scene happens only a few minutes before the end of the film. Men and boys are forced out of the base and shuffled into an empty warehouse, machine guns are seen through openings in the walls, and the camera pans away as the sounds of bullets pierce flesh. These images are haunting.
After a long, still shot of the execution site and a slow fade to a screen of white, Aida’s story picks up an undisclosed amount of time later. We are not told if the war is over, what the resolution was or to where Aida has fled.
Continuing its divergence from the war movie tropes, Žbanić deprives the audience of a clear-cut resolution. She avoids the desire for optimism, instead leaning into ambiguity and a disconcerting sense of uncertainty. In a village covered in white snow, she moves into an apartment decorated plainly with all the walls painted white. The purity of the atmosphere following the prior atrocity adds to the viewer’s sense of disorientation.
The audience is left unanswered. Yet the one thing we know for certain is Aida must continue her life in constant grief, a fact all too real for many Bosnians living today. Though Aida looks fondly at old photographs and reclaims her beloved job as a schoolteacher, she does so with a look of deep agony.
The film ends with an elementary school concert, as Aida and other survivors look after a new generation of innocent children. At first, the scene seems positive, but as the camera focuses on Aida’s hollow smile, the future is rendered equally as daunting as the past. “Quo Vadis, Aida?” is not hopeful but filled with heartbreak that will never truly be gone. Its understated tones create a thought-provoking film that speaks to the tragedy of both the Bosnian War and the world’s lack of knowledge regarding the conflict.
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