Successfully reaching the shortlist in the International Feature Film category for the 93rd Academy Awards, Quo Vadis, Aida? is Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić’s story of one woman battling in extraordinary circumstances to save her family from the atrocities of war.
Whether you are old enough to remember events in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s or not, Quo Vadis, Aida? is an important piece of work both for reminding viewers of the history of the time, and also for understanding the consequences of inaction or even turning a blind eye to crimes against humanity.
Jasmila Žbanić’s film takes place over a short period of time in July 1995 in Bosnia at the height of the conflict there. Aida (Jasna Đuričić) is an interpreter working with the United Nations in the town of Srebrenica when the town is taken over by the Serbian army. The town’s inhabitants flee to the nearby UN camp for shelter, among them Aida’s husband and sons. It soon becomes clear that the UN forces are under-prepared to deal with the refugees, and the Serbian army is advancing on its gates looking for rebel soldiers. Under these circumstances, and with inside information from her role as interpreter, Aida uses her position within the UN camp to try to keep her family safe.
Quo Vadis, Aida? pulls no punches in highlighting the ineptitude and complacency – and perhaps even by default complicity – of the United Nations in standing by, as loosely disguised genocide took place right under their noses. The Dutch soldiers of the peace-keeping force are either young and inexperienced or older and out of their depth and with no back up. They have nothing with which to counter the Serbian troops who bully their way in to the refugee camp, the hand-held camera getting right in among them to highlight the hustle and threat, and create a sense of uncertainty and fear.
The growing panic about what is happening appears obvious only to Aida in the first instance. With her linguistic skills and role between both the attacking and protective forces, she sees before everyone else what is to come. When the camera is not showing up the Serbian army for what it is, it follows Aida everywhere; she may be interpreting for the commander addressing the refugees, reassuring local townspeople on the ground, or racing around the camp desperately trying to find safe passage for her husband and family. It’s a controlled and yet authentically intimate way of revealing the horror of what is developing.
Jasna Đuričić in the lead role is magnetic. Although there are lots of female refugees in many of the scenes, Aida’s position more often than not makes her the only woman among a room full of men playing war games. Đuričić conveys Aida’s lack of power, and growing alarm bordering on panic, in an emotionally controlled manner that isn’t at all distancing – quite the opposite. The audience recognises from her portrayal that if Aida stops to think too much about the situation she will never recover; the only way is to keep going in the face of the unspeakable until there is nothing left to fight for.
By focussing on one woman in an extraordinary position during such violent times, director Jasmila Žbanić clearly sets out to show that among all the posturing, fighting and much, much worse, ordinary people’s lives have been changed forever. This is not 80 years ago, this is only 25 years in the past and still fresh in the minds and hearts of many.
Quo Vadis, Aida? is an important reminder of a slice of recent European history as well as a powerful and vital tribute to the thousands of brothers, sons and husbands who were lost, and the women left to mourn them.