Jasmila Žbanić’s “Quo Vadis, Aida?,” nominated for the Best European Film by the European Film Academy in 2021, as well as for an Oscar and two BAFTA awards, is a globally acclaimed work of art about historical truth, institutional responsibility, empathy and collective remembrance. But most of all, it is a work dedicated to freedom, human dignity and love of life.
Aida Selmanagić (Jasna Đuričić), the main character of the movie, is a translator for the United Nations in the small town of Srebrenica, eastern Bosnia. Žbanić offers us the opportunity to borrow Aida’s eyes for a while and witness through her the most horrifying atrocity committed in Europe since the Second World War: the genocide in Bosnia, culminating with the massacre of Srebrenica.
Between July 11 and 22, 1995, the armed forces of the wartime Republika Srpska, under the command of Ratko Mladić, murdered 8,372 Bosniak boys and men. Mladić was convicted in 2017 by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for genocide and crimes against humanity. The ethnic cleansing against the Bosniak population was committed under the U.N.’s watch. Žbanić’s movie brings this historical fact professionally to screens across the globe.
Throughout the film, Žbanić portrays the U.N. soldiers in a symbolically rich manner. The camera offers us a full body portrait. We notice that their arms and legs are bare. They are exposed, just like their presence in Srebrenica was (later) exposed to have primarily served Ratko Mladić and his men.
The U.N. soldiers seem boyish, insecure, annoyed by the situation and unable to cope with it. When they finally decide to take action, they become Mladić’s accomplices.
We see how all civilians that were supposed to have been protected by the U.N. are handed over to the Serbian forces, who immediately start to separate women and children from the men. As the women and children are being loaded onto buses to be transported to safety, a U.N. soldier points out a young man hiding under a headscarf in the line of women, trying to escape the death squad. He is pulled out of the line and sent to join the men, and thus to his death.
The U.N.'s protective role at Srebrenica was a masquerade; they made no meaningful effort to exercise their duties as peacekeepers.
The scene represents the actual approach of the U.N. in Srebrenica. Even in moments when the U.N. could have provided real help, they refused to do so. Indifferent to the urgency and life or death stakes, they send Aida’s husband and two sons — Nihad, Hamdija and Sejo Selmanagić — to the death squad by refusing to perform a simple task: putting their names on a sheet of paper with the other members of the U.N. facility.
They refused to evacuate a single family. Bureaucracy did not allow for it.
Which bureaucracy? The same bureaucracy that was enjoying their vacations and therefore failed to act when Mladić broke a U.N. ultimatum. The same bureaucracy represented by Colonel Karremans and Major Franken from the Dutch U.N. battalion that allowed the armed Serbian forces to enter the U.N. facility and threaten the obviously unprotected civilians before later murdering them. The rules could be easily broken, as the audience witnesses, but never for the protection of innocent lives.
Aida becomes the representation of the collective experience of the people of Srebrenica whose dear ones were violently taken away from them.
The U.N.’s protective role at Srebrenica was a masquerade; they made no meaningful effort to exercise their duties as peacekeepers. By putting a spotlight on their actions, Žbanić shows that the U.N. provided no help because they did not want to.
The film shows the unwillingness and inability of foreign powers and the U.N. to act quickly and empathetically when lives are at stake. It also shows that structures like the U.N. are often led by political interests that have nothing to do with human rights, as Žbanić herself states.
Through Aida’s eyes
Probably the most powerful scene in the movie is when Aida gets on her knees and begs Major Franken to spare at least one of her sons, after having tried everything to protect her entire family.
Aida becomes the representation of the collective experience of the people of Srebrenica, especially the women of the town, the mothers, the daughters, the nieces, the lovers, the friends whose dear ones were violently taken away from them. They are the people who continue to preserve the memory of their loved ones and who have internalized by now this historical trauma, the failure of civilization at the heart of Europe.
Aida also embodies the spirit of those who still live with the hope that their sons and husbands, their brothers and cousins, may still show up alive at the front door after having been missed for 26 years.
At the same time, through Aida, we become witnesses to the experience of the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the ’90s and other parts of what was once Yugoslavia, which were disfigured by fascism, hate and wars that could have been prevented.
The eyes of Jasna Đuričić’s Aida, staring straight into the camera from behind the fence of the U.N. facility while Serb forces are taking civilians away, is probably one of the strongest and sharpest sights in the history of cinematography. Her gaze is so captivating that in those few seconds we experience a wave of awe, anger and a thirst for answer, a need for justice.
Directors like Jean-Luc Godard, David Fincher and others have broken the fourth wall by directly addressing the audience, either to highlight the artificiality of the medium or the inner monologue of the characters. Žbanić creates a link between the character and the audience through silence, and to stress not the virtuality of cinema, but its power to bring forward truths. It is as if Aida’s eyes ask us: “Do you see what I see? And if you do, could you still remain silent or neutral?”
Male game of war
This movie comes at a time when genocide denial is thriving in Serbia, both at the institutional level and among parts of the general society. It comes at a time when the chauvinism of the Serbian government regularly disturbs the peace in the region, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo. It comes at a time when the Swedish Academy endorses a genocide denier and Milošević apologist like Peter Handke with the highest prize in literature.
“The sad truth,” as Hannah Arendt wrote, “is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” The information distortion taking place not just in the Balkans, but in the broader world, where genocide is put into question or reduced to a “misunderstanding of the past,” may lead to a repetition of what we must never allow to be repeated: the failure of humanity, as Srebrenica sadly became. Refusing to take a side on this issue helps only the perpetrators and their historical fabrications.
Žbanić makes sure to portray Aida not as a victim but as a survivor.
“Quo Vadis, Aida?” is not just a brilliant movie about war and reconciliation but a feminist movie as well. In Jasmila Žbanić’s own words: “I see war as a male game. Everything we know about war was created through the male gaze and position. We know only narratives of male power that were kept by men.”
Aida is caught up in the male game of war, but Žbanić, who accompanies her faithfully through most of the film’s runtime, in an act of solidarity and care, makes sure to portray Aida not as a victim but as a survivor. Aida is a strong woman. Her actions, her stance, her words, show only resilience. Žbanić has managed to give her a space where she naturally becomes a role model for the female audience which can identify with Aida’s courage to face an unwelcome burden.
Moreover, Jasmila Žbanić cares about the audience as much as she cares about her characters. She’s sensitive to people’s trauma and she intervenes to shield us from the brutality and perversion of war while convincing us of its full evil.
In Žbanić’s deft hands, the decision to not show any of the murders directly on screen heightens, rather than lessens, the emotional impact of the murder of 8,372 innocent people. This decision also shows her respect for the memory of the victims and their families.
Watching Žbanić’s film I was reminded of Primo Levi’s Holocaust memoir “If This Is a Man.” What we witness through Aida in the U.N. facility, where people can see and smell each other relieving themselves in a corner of the factory, is the type of degradation of humanity and the reduction of people to their basic biological instincts that Levi — an Italian Jewish chemist, writer and Holocraust survivor — wrote about so hauntingly.
“Precisely because the [the camp] was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts; that even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization. We have become slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last — the power to refuse our consent,” wrote Levi.
“Quo Vadis, Aida?” takes care to give a face, a name and a personal history to those murdered in Srebrenica.
Just like in Levi’s memoir or the movie “Son of Saul,” Aida tries to disconnect herself emotionally while at the same time being preoccupied with all that is going on around her. She creates a protective wall by avoiding eye contact whenever she is walking among the refugees — her neighbors, colleagues, acquaintances — who desperately ask for her help. Her struggle to survive, together with her family, becomes stronger than the urge to help others.
In László Nemes’ “Son of Saul,” this becomes a survival tool both for the character in the movie and the audience. Saul, a Sonderkommando (prisoners who were forced to dispose of gas chamber victims), walks through Auschwitz with his head bowed, avoiding eye contact and the bodies piled up around him. Both Saul and Aida’s attempt to disconnect cannot be understood as indifference or an inability to feel. On the contrary, it is the ability to feel far too much.
“Quo Vadis, Aida?” takes care to give a face, a name and a personal history to those murdered in Srebrenica, so that 8,372 does not become just another number in history books. The film allows each and every one of the 8,372 men and boys to echo in our minds and souls as distinct individuals who loved and were loved, who dreamed and hoped for a world that does not work toward its own extinction.
Fascism does not bring anything else besides extinction.
The void that was created after the events in Srebrenica is touchingly portrayed by an image of the deserted town years later, its empty streets covered in snow. However, the movie ends with a vital scene: children are dancing in a school play. As they repeatedly cover and reveal their eyes with their small hands as part of the choreography, the scene asserts that genocide and the brutalities of history are not a game of peekaboo; though some may partake in genocide denial, the truth cannot be concealed.
In the audience, both those who caused pain and the ones who endured it sit by each other’s side, concentrating on the youth who, innocent and full of energy, seem to be eager to move on. But how can one move on in a land where a genocide was committed? Quo vadis?
This movie, its powerful messages and the discussions it provokes, is probably a good start, a way to move forward by never forgetting what lies behind.
I am deeply grateful to Jasmila Žbanić, the actors and the film crew for giving us, professionally and empathetically, this powerful piece of art at the right moment.
“There is Auschwitz and so there cannot be God,” claimed Primo Levi. I do not know about God, but I know about justice and Srebrenica deserves its just place both in history and our conscience. May the entire world know this story. May the memory of those who were stolen from us prevail in time.
Feature image: Still from “Quo Vadis, Aida?”