Jasmila Žbanić’s Quo Vadis, Aida?: The weakness of strangers

Jasmila Žbanić‘s film about the lead-up to the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, Quo Vadis, Aida? is a heartbreaking story of humiliation and wilful blindness, but also a nuanced exploration of self-preservation, with actions rooted in very understandable human nature.

Everyone is afraid of the Serbs. There is a telling moment during the negotiation scene with General Mladic (Boris Isakovic), the brusque Serb commander with a dreadful reputation who seems to lead a gang of outright killers. He puts a cigarette in his mouth, and like lightning Colonel Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh), the commander of the UN forces and visibly nervous throughout the meeting, is on the spot to light it for him, as if he cannot help trying to ingratiate himself. Also telling, about his extremely weak position and resources, is the fact that the lighter misfires twice before producing any result.

A representative of the mighty UN being servile to the dreaded General Mladic.

Many of the all-Dutch UN soldiers under his command have barely left the teenager level – in one scene, their uniforms, allowing for shorts in the heat, make them look like children on a summer holiday compared to the hardened Serb warriors, who treat everyone with sinister contempt. Later, during the evacuation of refugees from the UN base, a Serb brazenly snatches a blue helmet from the top of the head of a UN soldier and starts wearing it. There is no protest. One of the UN boys has not understood what is really going on and calls out when he realises that one of the women in the file is a disguised man, and his fellow soldiers are furious with him, screaming “collaborator” at him. It seems evident to almost everyone that although on the face of it the refugees are under transport to a safe zone, male Bosnian Muslims are actually facing a very dangerous future. (And, yes, the young man will soon be a victim of a massacre.)

A representative of the fallen city of Srebrenica is “negotiating” with a Serb, who sends her a sinister look – it does not at all help her that they went to school together.

In a situation with 25,000 refugees at a UN base with little food and water, bearing responsibility for their own inexperienced troops, with the promised support from NATO bombers turning out to be empty words, unable to reach even their own superiors, and finally presented with a series of unpredictable faits accomplis from potentially bloodthirsty Serbs, the UN contingent seems, in an act of self-preservation, to wash their hands of the whole thing. They let the Serbs “evacuate” everyone, still pretending that they will be transported to a safe zone, even after there have been UN eyewitness reports that refugees have been mass executed just 200 meters from the base, and several convoys of wounded have never reached the hospital.

Colonel Karremans seems to have abdicated completely, shutting himself inside a room, never to be seen again in the film, and it falls to his second-in-command Major Franken (Raymond Thiry), a strictly-by-the-book person, in stark contrast to the no-rules-at-all Serbs, to organise the exodus from the UN compound. A much better and more principled soldier than Karremans, he is for example aghast at his superior’s fearful decision to let armed Serbs into the base to look for Muslim soldiers among the refugees, but in the end he feels he has to follow orders, and anyway he is overpowered by the Serbs. Nevertheless, on a human level, he definitely could have done more for the heroine, had not procedural and, more importantly, psychological mechanisms prevented him.

It is in this environment that the film’s heroine Aida (Jasna Djuricic) has to rely on the kindness of strangers. She will soon discover, however, that the bonds forged with the UN personell through her work as a translator are not strong enough to win her many special favours, as she has to navigate the job demands at the same time as securing the safety – which she firmly believes lies within the UN base – of her husband and two sons in the late teens. The family seems to have deep roots in Srebrenica, because there is a street bearing their surname, Selmanagic, a name that General Mladic does not like as he enters the fallen city, demanding the street sign to be taken down.

The film’s heartbreaking trajectory sees Aida driven from bastion to bastion – all the time, however, impressively thinking on her feet – in a downward spiral of desperation, that ends in a stunning act of abject self-humiliation that will etch itself into the viewer’s mind. Through her job and loyalty to the UN, however, she becomes to a certain degree complicit in the tragedy, because at a point when she is convinced it is not safe at all, she still translates Major Franken’s reassuring instructions to the refugees about the coming evacuation to a safe zone, and it is reason to believe that the words get more weight spoken by a well-respected fellow Muslim. Is she hoping, on some level, to raise the chances of getting help from him to fulfil the frantic hope that her family can leave, like her, as official members of the UN contingent? (Alas, his vague half-encouragements are mostly a method to make her leave the UN people alone, to do their job.)

Major Franken and Aida at a key moment.

The film is painting Aida fundamentally as a warm and very good person, but (a minor but definitive) part of the tragedy here is the fact that circumstances are forcing her, too, into a basic stance of self-preservation, of her entire family. This is executed with laser-sharp focus. When an apparently good friend asks Aida to take her son with her as Aida tries to hide her own sons away inside the base she is just ignored, and the same happens to a close friend of one of her sons who asks to be let inside the base together with her family.

“We are on the list!!” Aida demands all of her family to be counted as official UN personnel.


The article will from now on go into detail about the fate of the characters.

In the epilogue, it must be especially hard to bear for Aida that by bringing her family into the UN base, she also led them to their death, with one son even killed the day before his birthday. Her son’s friend, however, is seen alive at the end, having probably followed his original idea of seeking refuge in the woods. Jasna Djuricic plays Aida with intense conviction, but her utterly stricken demeanour in the epilogue is almost even more impressive, underplayed to the extreme, for example when she almost breaks down at the sight of the little boy who now lives in her old apartment with his Serb family, but conveyed through a minimum of visible expression, her face in profile.

She very soon collects herself, however, as if having little emotion left.

Looking now at the film at a more granular level, with a special emphasis on that epilogue, it just gets increasingly impressive. Quo Vadis, Aida? is richly textured, with a large number of secondary incidents deftly woven into the greater narrative. Thus the misogynist, hyper-masculine attitudes of the Serb fighters are illuminated, sometimes just in passing when they deride a female UN soldier, or in excruciating duration as the female negotiator is powerless to resist an overly long, “loving” body search before meeting General Mladic. Also, in the film’s unceasing hunt for nuance, even Aida’s husband is portrayed as not immune to such notions, as shown in his outburst about being unable to stand “stupid women” when his negotiator colleague suggests he has been naïve towards Mladic.

At one point, a woman is brutally separated from her mother even though the refugees were only supposed to be separated by gender. This is a young and quite beautiful woman, however, so it is likely that she is picked out as a rape victim. Her fate becomes even clearer when we recognise the perpetrator…
…as the same man who earlier performed the lecherous frisking of the negotiator.

This recurring character exemplifies another source of textural density: a number of subtle story strands concerning minor secondary characters. There is so much going on in the film and in such an intense atmosphere, however, that they are unlikely to fully register with the viewer until revisits. The trajectory concerning the Serb above is among the shortest and we will later return to some others.

The short opening scene, with Aida and her family, is formally interesting and comes across as existing outside of time and narrative, as it is unclear where it fits in. (Soon there is the tense meeting between the UN and three representatives of Srebrenica with Aida present as translator, and she is already at the UN base when her family arrives, so the opening does not show her sitting with them waiting for any evacuation.) The disconnect is strengthened by the stylised appearance of the characters, as they sit motionless – in stark contrast to the frantic activity in the rest of the story – with the men all looking in the same direction. Further setting it apart is the fact that it is scored while there is no film music during the rest of the film’s main body.

The camera glides along the males: the youngest son, the husband and the oldest son, before the next shot cuts to her. This signals the trajectory of the film by visually separating Aida from the others, and she is also facing the opposite direction. The males look towards her, as if already dependent on her to be saved.
When last seen, just before the massacre, their terrible communion is heightened by now sharing the same frame – the opening scene saw them spaced far apart – and the earlier stylised serenity has been replaced by horrific, messy reality.

Quo Vadis, Aida? is a powerful example that avoiding explicit violence can make a story even more gripping. As the Serbs invade Srebrenica, the Mayor is led around a corner and, himself out of sight, is executed in a background event that could easily be overlooked. Furthermore, a dead woman is seen lying on the ground (memorably, with her food still being prepared in the oven), and that is about it. There is no violence being performed on camera, except for two refugees being slapped in the face.

Instead, our imaginations are invited to fill in the gruesome deeds, here along with a UN soldier, she who was taunted earlier by the Serbs, who notices prisoners being led away. Quite soon, machine gun fire will ring out in the background of another scene.

The same goes for the film’s most masterful scene, indirectly capturing the massacre but with the violence replaced by the below serene shot of the square outside while we hear the smattering of machine guns killing Muslims who have been locked inside the building.

At one point, the camera starts to back slowly away, as if leaving something behind, including the edges of the gate in the shot. All the while we see only terrifying emptiness, of the square and also the vehicles that brought the victims. It is as if they have already disappeared. Did they ever exist and was they ever transported in these lorries? The perpetrators would like us to forget.

Almost as terrifying is the fact that the massacre happens in the middle of town. Boys are seen playing football before they run away at the sound of the guns, and we have already seen people on a balcony nearby. Brilliantly, perfectly normal sounds of an everyday city take over when the shooting stops, dominating the last stretch of the shot. Like the victims, the gunfire as a concrete manifestation of a massacre having here taken place has disappeared, as if never having existed.

The musical theme of the opening scene gave way to the overwhelming, crunching sound of tanks, as the Serbs are advancing on Srebrenica. Now the sound of the massacre has terminated the main body of the film as the conclusion of that invasion, the noise of war thus book-ending this part of the story. Now, as if the film begins anew, the opening musical theme returns as the epilogue starts. The bleak emptiness of the square we have been staring at sets the tone for the film’s last few minutes.

The transition to the epilogue, many years later, happens via a fade to white and dissolve to an empty winter landscape. (The heroine will soon come driving on the road.)
More austere emptiness: Aida’s apartment after the temporary Serb “owners” have moved out. (Aida has just imagined one of her dead sons calling out for her, but she hardly reacts, by now used to this.)
And the bleakest scene of them all: the naked room with the remains from a mass grave of massacre victims, laid out for identification.

The camera placement capturing this room sets up a clear echo between three different situations, as if even a scene of pure childlike joy somehow carries with it the memory of horror and tragedy:

What a contrast: the future generation during a school performance and the older generation just about to be massacred. The refugees are as innocent as the children, however, and the situations are further linked through a performance aspect, since the screen indicates that movies used to be shown here. (Delighted, the murderers shout that the “real movie” will soon start.)
In the very powerful earlier scene, Žbanić’s reticent, minimalist approach keeps us on a respectful distance to Aida’s grief – instead relying on our capacity for empathy and identification – as she suddenly suddenly falls to her knees, having recognised the shoes of a family member, and realises that the remains of her husband and sons are all lying here.

The epilogue contains a number of call-backs to the earlier action:

As Aida returns to Srebrenica to reclaim her apartment, the gliding camera movement that collected her family members in the opening shot returns, but now it is the wary, sometimes sinister gazes of strangers that are captured. This is likely to be Serbs, who will look at her with sceptical eyes, and some of them might be war criminals. The musical theme is still sounding, further strengthening the link to the family situation.
A great contrast between these nearly identical framings outside Aida’s building: boys playing football now (like outside the massacre building) and the frantic flight of refugees early in the film. The burnt-out car from wartime has been replaced with a new one.
Aida is hesitating before ringing the doorbell. Soon it will become apparent that it is her former apartment, and this shot echoes a brief earlier one when her husband left for the last time. Some renovation has been applied to the wall since then.
As soon as she enters, Aida recognises the clock as her family’s own and looks at it, and during the conversation with the Serbian woman living there now, it is always visible behind her in the shot. When she has taken over the apartment, there is only a bare wall, the clock obviously having been appropriated by the interim inhabitants.
This is subtle – almost too much so, since the implications are quite horrifying – but the victims were in fact buried in “plain sight”, just outside the building where the massacre took place, in a brazen display of indifference, or confidence, by the perpetrators. (The background of the digging scene fits what we saw in the shot of the square, including the tree and the bench further away to the left; they were buried in the field just to the right of the lorry.) Thus the bodies resided in the middle of town, so many must have known, but as Aida tells the Serbian woman, still no one would tell where they were buried.

Backtracking a bit: an interesting formal episode occurs during Aida’s flashback/dream about the exuberant Hairstyle Contest just before the Bosnian war broke out. Not only is the mood entirely different from the current desperation, but their party clothes as well as the elaborate look and make-up form a stunning contrast. At the end, ten of the attendees are dancing past the camera but in slow motion, and gaiety has been replaced by solemnity as each, as if in a ritual, is looking directly into the lens. This parade also functions as a mournful commemoration of the Yugoslavia that fell apart and a roll call of minor characters.

We will now go into some of the strands concerning minor characters. Since many in the party scene will feature among them, let us identify them. (By the way, the person from the “independent TV station in Belgrade” that keeps filming General Mladic on his instructions is possibly the same man who takes photographs during this event.)

Top: (1) unknown; (2) Srebrenica representative present at the early UN meeting, fate unknown; (3) the mayor of Srebrenica, immediately killed by the invading Serbs; (4) unknown, possibly his wife since they sat together just before; (5) Mitar, a Serb who is hosting the contest, and a future enemy, a survivor. Bottom: (6) unknown; (7) Chamila, one of the negotiators in the Mladic meeting, a survivor; (8) Zumra, winner of the contest, fate unknown, might also be identical to the wife seen with (9) another man, who is led away to his death by Mitar ; (10) Ahmed, a close friend of one of Aida’s sons, a survivor.
The most memorable, vulnerable-looking child during the performance in the film’s last scene is actually the son of the Serbian woman, a fact easily overlooked since he is very fast when commanded to greet Aida in the apartment. Now he looks oddly shameful, as if on some level aware of the past tragedy, and the constant hand movements of all the children lead our thoughts to the prisoners’ hands on their heads.
It is also difficult to recognise the beaming woman in the audience as the very tense, ashamed but not impolite woman who received Aida in the apartment. (She is wearing a necklace with a cross as if the film wants to mildly emphasise her Christian background in contrast to her Muslim visitor.)
It is very easy to recognise the person sitting beside her, however, as Joka, a prominent figure among the Serbian forces: the uncouth leader of the search of the UN camp for Muslim soldiers, and very eager to suck up to General Mladic inside Srebrenica earlier. War criminals are obviously walking around like regular people now in peacetime, and Aida was startled to recognise him in the staircase and realising he was now living in her apartment. His delight in seeing his son perform forms a chilling contrast to his joyless smile when noticing the refugee baby inside the camp. But during the performance, his expression is clouding over at the end as if there might be some room in him for guilt and shame…
…something that is even more pronounced with Mitar, who is also present. He seems outright sad, maybe regretting his role in the war. We saw him as the host of the Hairstyle Contest during Aida’s flashback/dream of earlier peacetime, where he also saluted the Mayor in a measured manner, as if tensions were already present. Later he turns up during the evacuation of the UN camp, pulling his neighbour away from his wife…
…and the latter ends up being massacred together with Aida’s family. We also saw him earlier (above, left) being interrogated by Joka during the inspection.
The same fate is shared by the son of Aida’s friend whom Aida refused to help earlier and was discovered by a UN soldier as posing as a woman. Waiting for execution (on the right) he still wears the sweater, which could be seen (left) held by his mother when they arrived at the base. It is almost as if his mother’s piece of clothing provides comfort facing death.
Ahmed is seen outside the gates, stating the idea of trying for the forests instead. He also asks to join them when Aida’s husband and son are let into the camp after dark but is ignored by Aida. That glimpse of him ends with him turning around, probably the film’s indication that he will now leave for the woods after all. Ironically, while Aida in practice leads her family to death by letting them in, Ahmed survives the war and can be seen observing the opening of the mass grave and also at the performance, where he looks over at Aida. (Chamila, the negotiator, is also seen at this performance.)

In the film’s last scene of the school performance, the camera is picking out some of the children for close-ups with them looking straight into the camera – although a couple have not properly received the memo! – and even the ones further back are doing it, everyone acting with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The rhythmic alternation between the children hiding the eyes and looking straight into the lens can be seen as a metaphor about the conflicting impulses of denial and facing the truth.

The scene is very touching in itself but becomes even more resonant, however, if we consider the flashback with the adults, many of them cut down in their prime, also gazing into the lens. They too are dancing, and both situations happen during peacetime, with the precariousness of the past peace casting shadows over the innocent children’s hopeful future.

The observant reader may have noticed that there are only nine children here versus ten adults in the flashback, but balance is subtly achieved by letting Aida conclude the present line-up, in a direct cut from the ninth child. (It is also fitting since she is likely the instructor.) She is never hiding her gaze, however, looking determinedly ahead, without blinking, and if not straight at the camera, very nearly so.
Like in the opening scene, however, Aida is separated from the others, standing by herself at the wall. This last shot of the film forms an echo with the last shot of the main body: there is a gentle, almost imperceptible camera movement towards her and this reverse mirroring of the equally discreet, but icy retreat from the square during the massacre feels meaningful – as if warmth and closure are reversing the earlier feeling of dread and tragedy. A new musical theme has been playing all through the performance, quieter and more settled, with the string instrument from the main theme now joined by a piano.
The last shot is also commenting upon an earlier, iconic image. The accusatory gaze directly into the camera is now replaced by something milder, and the fence is echoed in the gymnastic ladder, but the symbol of barriers are now put behind her rather than holding her captive.

Jasmila Žbanić has with this film not only proved that she is mastering intense, heartbreakingly immersive cinema but also formally rigorous, contemplative film-making in an epilogue that is a great work of art in itself.

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