The harrowing war drama “Quo Vadis, Aida?” uses a carefully fictionalized story to set our feet in the Bosnian war and more specifically an atrocity known as the Srebrenica massacre. This weighty material is presented through the clear-eyed, unvarnished lens of writer, director, and producer Jasmila Žbanić. Her film has received worldwide acclaim topped off by a recent Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Hopefully that will lead to more exposure and more people seeking out this gripping eye-opener.
Set during the tumultuous July of 1995, “Quo Vadis, Aida?” takes place in and around the small mountain town of Srebrenica. Tensions were high between Bosnian Serbs and the Muslim Bosniaks with civilians (as they often are) caught in the middle. As war brewed, Srebrenica had been declared a UN safe area by the United Nations. But that didn’t stop Serb forces under the command of General Ratko Mladić (Boris Isaković) from marching in and taking over the town. It resulted in a flood of Srebrenica refugees fleeing their homes and seeking refuge at a nearby UN base camp.
Undermanned, undersupplied and overwhelmed, the UN base was ill-equipped to handle the tens of thousands of people at their gate. A couple thousand were allowed in while the rest were left outside the gate under the hot sun with no food, water or toilets. Much worse, the small Dutch unit who manned the base where there to protect the local civilians in the ‘safe area’ yet they were never given the authority to use force and calls for airstrikes to drive back Serb forces went unanswered. This led to their utter inability to defend against the atrocities that would soon take place right under their noses.
Žbanić pulls us into this shattering real-life story through the fictional character Aida (played with such passion and emotional intensity by Jasna Đuričić). She was a school teacher before the Bosnian Wars, now she works as an interpreter for the UN. She’s the backbone of her family and a large part of the story followers her as she tries to ensure the safety of her timid but loving husband Nihad (Izudin Bajrović) and their two sons Hamdija (Boris Ler) and Sejo (Dino Bajrović). We see everything through Aida’s eyes – the Serb army’s march on Srebrenica, the UN camp crisis, and the horrors that come once General Mladić and his troops arrive to “relocate” the refugees.
Both Žbanić’s direction and Christine A. Maier’s cinematography organically creates a nail-biting tension and a truly ominous sense of dread. Aside from history informing us, we know things are heading in a grim direction. We experience Aida’s increasing desperation as she scrambles around the base using her UN badge and any shred of privilege to get her family inside the gates. Then when that illusion of safety begins to crumble both her survival and maternal instincts kick into another gear as she searches for a way to get her family out of the base before Mladić’s murderous soldiers arrive. Đuričić empties herself into this emotionally and physically demanding role and the camera keeps us by her side most of the way as pressure mounts and her hard-to-hide terror sets in.
The Srebrenica massacre resulted in the slaughter of over 8,000 men and boys. They were separated from the women and loaded onto buses by Mladić’s soldiers at the UN base as the Dutch unit watched helplessly. They were then transported to other towns and savagely executed. It’s here that Žbanić holds back, never showing the slaughter but leaving no doubt in our minds of their fate. Interestingly there are elements to the atrocities that Žbanić chooses to stay away from. Namely the numerous testimonies of violent abuse the women faced – countless rapes, the slaughter of children in front of their mothers, and so on. It’s stomach-churning material for sure, but it would put an extra emphasis on what these women were subjected to. The restraint is admirable, but this is a part of the account that needed stressing.
From the very first frame “Quo Vadis, Aida?” comes across as a deeply personal film. It has a lot it wants to say and more it wants to expose. In one sense it is a stinging indictment of the UN’s mishandling of conflicts and of international apathy which often allows these kinds of atrocities to take place. But it’s also meant to honor the survivors and pay tribute to those lost. In terms of cinema, its a well-made and utterly distressing movie chronicling an unspeakable series of events that are still freshly etched into many minds. The Oscar-nominated “Quo Vadis, Aida?” is now streaming on VOD.
VERDICT – 4 STARS