Because Forgetting is Not an Option: Jasmila Žbanić’s “Quo Vadis, Aida?”

I was not planning on writing about “Quo Vadis, Aida?“, Jasmila Žbanić’s most recent feature film. Given I haven’t written in this blog in many years, you can imagine the impact this film had on me. This is a review that focuses on the social implications of the themes the film covers, going beyond its cinematographic value.

By now, the film has been shown at the Venice Film Festival, London Film Week, the Kerala Film Festival, and the Toronto International Film Festival, to some rave reviews, and is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s submission to the 2021 Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Film category (Variety considers it a strong contender).

In this international film production (quite a collaboration between Bosnia and Herzegovina, Norway, Romania, Austria, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, France, and Turkey – Zbanic ran into some trouble securing funding for the film), Žbanić offers a 101-minute glimpse into the lives of occupied Bosnian Muslim inhabitants of Srebrenica, on the fateful day of July 11, 1995, when Serbian military perpetrated the worst case of genocide in Europe since the Holocaust. For the unfamiliar, the horrific events began with the Serbian paramilitary and volunteer troops surrounding the UN-designated safe area of Srebrenica, the first-ever safe area designated for the protection of civilians, in the midst of a war zone. The area was being guarded by Dutch peacekeepers when it was surrounded, then occupied, and the space emptied of all residents, while buses carrying women and girls parked outside, and men and boys were loaded onto transport trucks. Within three days of occupying the compound, Serbian troops murdered over 8,000 men and boys from the area, and raped women and girls. Former Serb General Ratko Mladic (played by Serbian actor, Boris Isakovic in the film) is said to have overseen the horrific violence in Srebrenica, and was indicted in 2017 for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, along with Radovan Karadzic, who’s said to have ordered the genocide.

As a survivor of the war in Kosova, my perspective on this film is necessarily personal, and I have made no effort to make this an objective review, because all along, while watching this film, I was comparing the depictions in this film to my own experience. I do this for most films depicting war and conflict. It’s one of the lingering impacts of surviving war to look for the familiar.

Now that historic facts and personal disclaimers are out of the way, let’s turn to the film.

The title of the film is evocative of a Biblical account of Peter ‘s encounter with resurrected Jesus, where Jesus’ response to Peter’s question “Domine quo vadis?” (Where are you going, Lord?) is “to be crucified again,” predicting the eventual crucifixion Peter undergoes. Peter returns to Rome, where he knows he will be crucified. The title refers to this notion of inevitability of being murdered, engrained into the collective memory of the 1992-95 war.

Spoiler Alert: If you plan to watch this film, please stop reading here.

The film opens and closes with hauntingly powerful original music composed by Antoni Komasa-Łazarkiewicz. With few exceptions, the film sound mostly consists of no background music, and much of it centers on its main character, Aida, played by Jasna Đuričić. The sound is unsettling and raw, throwing the viewer directly into the action, and we can feel the tension with every bit of background noise, from leaves blowing in the wind, tanks rolling into a quiet village, to the fearful voices of thousands of people crammed into an old factory. The tension of one of the first scenes in the film is palpable – Aida is a Bosnian Muslim interpreter, helping UN peacekeepers negotiate with the local mayor. Đuričić’s acting is powerful – you can sense the fear, anxiety, uncertainty in her words, and her ability to adapt to the mood of the scene is impeccable. Granted, her emotional spectrum in the film required primarily leaning strongly toward anxiety/fear, ending with some explosive emotion in the last few scenes of the film, and it feels authentic, whether or not you’ve gone through war before – we can all empathize with the idea of loss, and Đuričić does a great job provoking that reaction in her audience.

For anyone who has followed and is a fan of Jasmila Zbanic’s filmography, this film will not disappoint – Just like in Grbavica/Esma’s Secret and Na Putu/On the Path, the viewer follows the main character closely, and as scenes follow, the plot unravels, peeling the layers of complexity of the human condition.

Zbanic has said that the film was originally inspired by Hasan Nuhanovic’s memoir on the UN’s historic failure to protect innocent Muslim civilians during the Bosnian war. For some of the peacekeepers, watching the violence unfold without being able to act must have been a horrifying experience. But for others, who showed indifference toward civilians beaten and murdered before them, history will be an unkind judge – and Zbanic’s film is an example of the stories that will be told to remember these moral and legal failures. In the film, Aida witnesses the cruelty of families being separated, and seeking to avoid this fate for her own family, begs Dutch peacekeepers, people she has been working for until now, to let her husband and two sons join her in the Dutch evacuation convoy. They coldheartedly refuse to help her, and over a number of scenes, we follow Aida’s frantic search for alternatives, from hiding them in the military section of the factory, to a secret compartment in the old factory, to no avail. The Dutch commander (based on commander Karremans, the Dutch commander who led the Srebrenica peacekeeping mission – apparently Zbanic had to get extra insurance to protect herself and her company from a lawsuit), orders all civilians out of the safe area, into Serbian hands, where they are separated by gender: men and boys are taken to be murdered, and women and girls to be raped. The chaos of war is in plain sight here: no one knows what will happen to them, but everyone has the worst in mind, and you can feel it in the chaos the scene depicts. The crowds of people evoke a sense of claustrophobia, chaos, disorder, destruction.

For the heavy content it covers, the film shows surprisingly little direct violence, blood, and gore, presumably to make the film more digestible to the mainstream. And it works – it makes the unknown, the fear, the tension, all the more real. We are left wondering when the worst will happen. In one of the closing scenes, we see men and boys shoved into a school theatre, where they are shot by anonymous Serb guns coming out of windows of the theatre – we never actually see the men and boys, but we hear the shots. That scene depicts so much. It demonstrates Zbanic’s commitment to protect the dignity of the victims who were brutally murdered, but it also spares the viewer the unnecessary horror. It’s an elegant way to trigger our imagination to fill in the blank, and it’s powerful, leaving us with a feeling of emptiness and loss.

I was able to resist emotions throughout the film, despite the many triggering scenes, but I couldn’t resist Aida’s return to her hometown, witnessing the presence on the street of the same men who once attacked her family and her neighbours. One of the lead Serbian soldiers has even moved into her family apartment – All this time after the war, things are surprisingly civil between Aida and the man’s wife, who serves her coffee and appears to have saved a bag of her belongings, and passingly notes that she and her husband had thought that the owners of the apartment had not survived. We are meant to be angry at this woman, but all I could feel was pity for the serial victimization to which she and her husband have been subjected, with the false impression that they were victors. As Aida gives an ultimatum to the woman, whose child she will be teaching (she is returning to Srebrenica to continue to teach, as she did before the war), she is reminded by the woman that her safety may be at risk, implying she is surrounded by Serbs. Aida’s response is one of pushing back, because a woman who has lost her husband and two sons has nothing left to lose.

Zbanic’s strength as a filmmaker is in the small moments – the closing scene of the film, where we see children and their Muslim and Serbian parents in the audience, is a reminder of the future of Bosnian society, but poignantly, it is also a reminder of how few differences there have been between these families. It is a reminder of the cruelty of ethnic nationalism at the same time as it is a sign of hope for the future – if Aida can find it within her to teach the children of her enemy, who are we not to find forgiveness within us?

One thing I wish Zbanic had done better is to give her characters more dimension and nuance – these are not robots who murdered families, but people who had been neighbours and some even friends until the cleavages began (this is a lot more valid for describing Bosnians than it is for Kosovars). The most evil of the people depicted in the film had families they cared about and cared for; the most benign of the characters here had hatred, or at the very least, contempt, for the people who were committing horrific things in front of them. Zbanic exposes us to everything here, but never shows us why people act as they do – the stifling of rage all the innocent people must have felt is further amplified by their deference to orders. They are but sheep, the evil and the innocent alike, with the exception of the leaders, but we never see anything beyond the one dimension of their characters. We know, based on news articles, that Mladic’s daughter committed suicide, and he was never the same after that. We also know Karadzic wrote poetry and was a physician before (and even while) he made anti-Muslim and anti-Croat hatred his mission in life. We get a hint of this banality when we see one of Aida’s former students, now in Serbian military uniform, recognize her. He jokes with her in a menacing manner, while recounting school days, and later protects her from being taken away with other women, while forcing many others into buses.

Serbian response to the film has been somewhat unflattering, characterizing the film as excessively dramatic (!), challenging facts and depictions, taking issue with the depiction of Serbs as war criminals, including by Serbian actors; and claiming the film being sent as an official Oscar entry does not represent all of Bosnia and Herzegovina. To be fair, though, there have also been some positive reviews, including from the Serbian Film Centre and Pescanik. The actors (Aida is played by a Serbian actress, and in real life is married to Boris Isakovic, who plays the role of Ratko Mladic) generally wanted the film to be seen by the Serbian public before commenting. Time will tell how this film will resonate more generally among Serbians in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

For a long time, and most recently while watching “Quo Vadis, Aida?”, I have wondered why post-2000 Bosnian and Kosovar cinema has been so attached to telling and retelling stories of the traumatic war experience the civilians of both these societies experienced at the hands of Serbian military and paramilitary. Films like Zana, Martesa, Shok, and Muskarci ne Placu have depicted the remnants of the trauma war has left on (primarily Kosovar and Bosnian, but Dobra Zena reminds us of the impact on Serbian) societies. After watching this film, though, I realized that may not have been the right reaction to these beautiful but harrowing stories – perhaps their telling and retelling is our insurance against collective amnesia. Perhaps by getting to know these stories, we can collectively become more empathetic in the face of suffering; more caring when we hear about genocide taking place in faraway places around the world; and more moved to act instead of pondering apathy. Sadly, you need only turn to news media to find out about genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes taking place right now. Fortunately for us, we can no longer claim ignorance the way Europeans claimed they didn’t know Srebrenica happened in the midst of a continent that had experienced horrific genocide fifty years earlier. Maybe that inability to hide behind ignorance will finally move us to action.

Key to Balkan audiences either in southeast Europe or abroad, is the fact that no one can say “we didn’t know” anymore – when stories like Aida’s and Hasan Nuhanovic’s are around us, choosing not to hear them and read them is willful ignorance.

The beauty of films like “Quo Vadis, Aida?” is in their ability to mobilize us to learn more, act, and help others. I hope it does well – these stories need to be seen and heard by many more people, including those close within my social circle.

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