In the final months of the years-long Bosnian war (1992-1995), a conflict that pitted Bosnia and Herzegovina against factions backed by Croatia and Serbia, the brutally iconic events of July 1995, in the city of Srebrenica, are still a point of international scrutiny today. In an area of the beleaguered country declared a “safe zone” by the UN, hundreds of residents, most of them Muslim, sought shelter from the forces that would otherwise indiscriminately remove them from the country, alive or not. Jasmila Žbanić’s gripping and heartbreaking Quo Vadis, Aida? immerses us in the chaos, confusion and dread of a single day in the camp where Aida (Jasna Đuričić), a high school teacher fluent in English, serves as a translator for the Dutch UN officers hoping to broker some kind of peaceful retreat for the civilians both inside the shelter and swarmed on the grounds surrounding the protected base.
Led by the stone-hearted general Ratko Mladić (Boris Isaković), the Serbian troops ravage the now empty streets of a town riddled by exploding shells and intermittent gun battles, making their way toward the “safe zone” for the negotiations it’s clear from very early on will not end well. Mladić’s icy and manipulative “I guarantee the safety of all innocent people,” is stomach-churning in the way it foreshadows just how bad things will get. Aida participates in the conversations as best she can when she’s not translating the UN soldiers’ orders to the mostly patient but growingly frustrated crowds waiting outside. No, there is no more room on the base, not even for her own husband and sons. But she pleads, begs and bargains with the UN officers she’s helping, eventually getting her husband, Nihad (Izudin Bajrović), and their sons, Hamdija (Boris Ler) and Sejo (Dino Bajrović) into the camp when Mladić insist on negotiating with everyday citizens of Srebrenica. A history professor and “one of the most educated men in the village,” Nihad and others sit at the negotiating table dwarfed by Mladić and his imposing posse of armed soldiers.
What happens next happens quickly, and Žbanić never takes her foot off the gas pedal as the early confusion turns to outright pandemonium. Approached by some of Mladić’s cronies, UN soldiers at the camp’s gates actually allow in a cadre of armed militants (into a “safe zone”!) who insist they’re just searching for anyone carrying weapons or otherwise guilty of crimes during the war. Meanwhile, the terms agreed to at the negotiating table, to let the UN draft a plan to safely remove all the civilians from the base goes entirely out the window as Mladić has his men start rounding everyone up, the women and children in one direction, men in the other. It’s all tormenting to watch unfold as a viewer, from the safety of home; it’s unconscionable to think innocent people experienced this.
In the midst of it all, Aida is laser focused on keeping her husband and sons safe; she pleads for the UN officers to add them to the personnel list with her and the other support staff on it. She begs to have them hidden in the staff offices while Mladić’s soldiers search the camp. Đuričić, whose acting credits date back to the early 2000s, is riveting as a woman determined to at least keep her own family from whatever is about to happen. As the situation deteriorates, so does her willingness to play nice; she will make fake UN ID badges for them, she decides. No, the machine is broken. She’ll get them on that personnel list. No, the UN officer in charge simply scratches them out again. Time after time, her efforts are thwarted and is just a small glimpse into the desperation of these people being torn from their loved ones, being packed onto buses with destinations unknown. Their agony and worry in every tumultuous moment is every bit ours, too.
As much as films about beauty and potential are a necessary art form, those that shine their spotlight on the darkest deeds humans are capable of are just as essential, and Žbanić’s gutting portrayal of what happens next for the men separated from their families is a scene I never, ever have to see again and will never, ever forget. As if the brutal massacre of innocent lives (a genocide, some are brave enough to say) isn’t a powerful enough wake-up call about the atrocities (and pointlessness) of war, Žbanić’s choice to end the film in a coda that takes place years later is perhaps even more distressing, as a community comes to harsh terms with the longterm effects of a lost generation of men. Aida remains our entry point here, too, the years of grief, loss and hardship evident on her face. With the help of cinematographer Christine A. Maier’s stark framing and observant style, the film’s final few moments are perhaps the most affecting, the ramifications of that day, that war, devastatingly laid out before us. Quo Vadis, Aida? is not what one might call “feel-good cinema,” but it is an absorbing and undeniably powerful archive of a moment in time that altered the course of individual lives, a community and, one could argue, a region.
Quo Vadis, Aida? is now playing in virtual cinemas, including with Music Box Theatre. A portion of your rental supports the cinema while it’s partially closed.
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