The Yugoslav Wars are familiar to those in the Balkan regions. Outside that, few people can really tell what happened nearly three decades ago. One of the most brutal ethnic cleansings in recent memory happened in Bosnia, specifically in one town called Srebrenica, where 8,372 Bosnian men and boys were slaughtered.
Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanic’s fifth feature Quo vadis, Aida? focuses on Aida (Jasna Ðuričić), a village teacher who became the United Nations’ interpreter for their peacekeepers in Srebrenica. The film starts off with Aida sitting in the living room with her husband Nihad (Izudin Bajrović) and their two sons Hamdija (Boris Ler) and Ejo (Dino Bajrović)—the sense of impending doom dawning on them. It then cuts to many men sitting around a table negotiating, with Aida interpreting. The UN peacekeepers give the Serbian forces an ultimatum, which the latter ignores completely as they invade Aida’s hometown Srebrenica, a declared “safe zone” by the UN.
War films do not particularly catch my eye; so many of them focus on the male perspective of war, filled with violence and loss of humanity. Recent films like 1917 or Da 5 Bloods focus on the male experiences of war, with brutality and violence surrounding them. But Žbanic’s shift to the perspective of a mother during an event filled with violence—more specifically, someone who tries to balance being displaced by the war and straddling around the bureaucracy of the UN—feels like a refreshing take. The response the UN gives during this time is appalling: with the command of the Dutch peacekeepers crumbling under pressure, the film establishes that the organization is useless in dire matters. This fact dawns on Aida as she tries to keep her family safe. Aida must make a lot of choices that are a matter of life or death because of her desperation to keep her loved ones safe while still doing her job right.
The film is careful not to explicitly show violence, unlike other films that dramatize genocide and war. With Christine A. Maier’s cinematography, the shots are delicate, showing the faces of those who witnessed the violence. It depicts what they have done through their expression, giving us only a peek of what happened. In scenes where Serbian soldiers shoot civilians, Maier hides what has become of the bodies and just gives us a look at the perpetrators. War films that show explicit violence feel exhausting. In addition, Žbanic distracts us from the chaos by depicting light moments in Aida’s experiences. In one scene, Aida smokes a blunt that starts a flashback to a party with her neighbors. The camera then lingers on the faces of those she knows as they danced in a line, looking at us so we can never forget them. Such a haunting scene, beautiful and simple yet heavy on the visual metaphor that conveys that these people we are looking at are now victims of the war. The gentle transition between this light-hearted moment and reality is so elegantly done. Žbanic keeps the balance between a sense of hope and the gloomy reality of the situation, which I found astounding because the film never loses its humanity even in the hardest of situations.
This filmis an emotional ride from start to finish, and Ðuričić gives one of the best performances of the year. Perhaps if not for Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman, she would’ve won the Volpi Cup in Venice, since her acting in both English and Bosnian are masterful. The way she handles emotion and relays them in two languages is so powerful.
Quo Vadis, Aida? dramatizes a brutal war from recent memory. This senseless loss of lives deserves to be known more; after all, those who do not learn from their past are, well, doomed to repeat it.