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