Sunday, April 18, 2021


Bosnian writer-director Jasmila Žbanić’s Quo Vadis, Aida? is a work of astonishing intensity and riveting despair. It takes a heartrendingly personal and intimate approach to a sweeping crisis by bringing its focus tightly to the plight of one woman and her family amidst one tragic moment. The film is a grim historical recreation, taking place during the 90’s conflict in which Serbian forces committed a genocide against Bosnian Muslims. Set in 1995 outside the village of Srebrenica, the picture watches as fleeing civilians, tens of thousands of them, overwhelm an understaffed and unprepared United Nations’ base. In the film’s opening moments, we saw Aida (Jasna Đuričić), a schoolteacher working as a translator for the UN observers, pass along assurances that the Serbian general (Boris Isaković) will not invade the town after a recent NATO ultimatum. But those out to commit genocide are not inclined to play by the rules or keep promises. Srebrenica is overrun. Masses flee ahead of the invading army. There is not enough room to house the people, and so they linger in the fields outside the theoretically safe international encampment, which looks all the more feeble and ineffectual by the second. Aida does her best to run between her desperate neighbors and the harried UN officials (like Dutch actor Raymond Thiry selling stress with every bead of sweat in his trim mustache) and their babyfaced soldiers. She carries messages and passes along calming announcements. But it’s clear from her clenched jaw and darting eyes — she sees the hunger, the squalor, the lack, the uncertainty — that she knows the situation is desperate, on the brink of danger. As the Serbian troops demand to negotiate and approach the refugees with threatening, bullying swagger, it’s clear who’s really taking charge.

The filmmaking makes the situation a cramped epic, pinpoint precise and specific in scale as masses of extras pile into small spaces, as news of enormous danger is whittled down up the chain of command and hands are tied by off-screen dithering and delay on the other end of the phone. In the compound we can feel the heat, the frustration, the commotion. But, although Žbanić’s docudrama approach captures with an expansive understanding the slippage of UN authority, and the terrible position in which these characters find themselves is rendered with a dread-soaked historical inevitability and all the immediacy of a vice tightening with each development, the movie never leaves Aida’s side. She’s constantly weighing options, asking favors, angling for better information, trying to position herself, her husband (Izudin Bajrović) and sons (Boris Ler and Dino Bajrović), to stay safe in a steadily, increasingly out-of-control situation. The nature of her job places her next to levers of power frozen in moments of inaction that allow the genocidal strongmen to fill the gap. They are the ones who organize an exit strategy for the refugees, promising safe passage and fresh food while the UN finds itself increasingly at a loss to help. When the buses and guns start to arrive at the compound, it sure starts looking like a holocaust in progress. Aida sees this, and is increasingly frustrated as those who claim to be there to keep them safe can’t see the danger, or won’t allow themselves to think that the sense of fair play and rules-following that animates their world — even in this most extreme of moments — will extend to the fascists at the door.

Žbanić’s film confronts the messy interpersonal struggle that is any big historical moment. It avoids the easy answers of noble suffering, righteous resolution, or quiet heroism in the face of the odds. It simply exists in this deeply painful sequence of events. In the sharply drawn present tense trauma settling into Đuričić’s performance we see a smart woman doing everything she can in the moment. But nothing prepares a person for a brewing massacre, not even surviving three years of civil war. Here she is vividly confronted with the fact that there are those in her country, those she knows well, who will kill her and her loved ones, simply because they have been enthralled with an evil ideology, and an evil leader, with prejudices enflamed and a renewed sense of purpose behind the barrel of a machine gun. One of the Serbian soldiers pointing a rifle at men, women, and children stranded in the field sees Aida near the gate. “Teacher!” he shouts. He wonders if she remembers him. Yes, she does. He was in her class—not too long ago, by the looks of him.  He grins. This is how close and personal a genocide becomes, how cruel and mundane. In the final moments of the film, after the tension culminates in devastation, an epilogue takes us past the immediacy of its historical moment and moves forward. It is in this final sequence that Žbanić arrives at her film’s most complicated and graceful evocation of mournful lingering trauma, regret, and consequences as we see Aida’s life and her town’s routine, years later. What does healing look like in the wake of a tragedy so immense and so personal? How can one possibly move on? Where can anyone — where can Aida — go from here? The impact remains and remains, and is remains, buried just beneath the surface.

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