Jasmila Zbanic’s powerful drama Quo Vadis, Aida?, about the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, starts with a sad irony. As the production company idents come up, and various “with the support of” and “in collaboration with” credits list all the European and international organisations involved, remember that when the events in this flm were playing out in real life actual international collaboration seemed to consist of a collective looking the other way.
Ask most people, most Europeans even, what the last war in Europe was and they’ll likely refer you to Adolf Hitler. That’s to forget the Bosnian war in the aftermath of the fragmentation of Yugoslavia – familiar as a holiday destination to so many. Zbanic reminds us, distilling the conflict down into one atrocity, the massacre at Srebrenica, and then distilling it again, into the story of a translator from Srebrenica working for the UN “blue beret” peacekeepers.
As the story opens, Dutch commander Colonel Karremans is reassuring the mayor of Bosnian Srebrenica in a highly charged meeting that if the advancing Serbs don’t cease and desist by 6am the following morning, Nato will bomb them.
In a nutshell, the Serbs do not cease and desist, the bombs do not come, and the population of Srebrenica is forced to evacuate, becoming refugees on their own doorstep, in and around the UN enclave. And still the Serbs keep coming. What happens next is the story of the Srebrenica massacre, when the population of the town was divided up and the men, over 8,000 of them, were taken away and killed and then buried in mass graves.
We see all this through the eyes of Aida (Jasna Djuricic), a tough, worldly and compassionate woman whose job as a UN translator might, you’d think, give her a few advantages as the menfolk are being rounded up and her husband and two sons are added to the tally.
Writer/director Zbanic is a Bosnian and she sees the story from that side of the fence. But her film is about a humanitarian disaster and a failure of the UN to prevent a massacre rather than an “ethnic” conflict between Bosniaks (Muslims) and Chetniks (Christians). What age-old grievances there might be remain unaired. Why neighbour went to war against neighbour is not her focus.
Enter the Serbian general Ratko Mladic, an imposing and scary figure, much given to plausible statements about the evacuation of the Srebrenicans to a safe place but radiating menace with every utterance. Good acting by Boris Isakovic (the husband of Djuricic in real life).
In fact the acting all round is very plausible. Johan Heldenbergh as the impotent UN Colonel Karremans, hung out to dry by his superiors and their empty talk, Raymond Thiry as the tough “bad cop” Major Franken, forced into going along with the genocidal manoeuvrings of Mladic and his men, Emir Hazihafizbegovic in a brief but potent performance as Joka, first encountered as a frighteningly unhinged anti-Muslim zealot, later, post-conflict, as a proud suburban dad watching his daughter in a school play.
Djuricic holds it all together, appearing in almost every scene, and as the tempo quickens and the ratchet of doom keeps clicking, she has to up the octane level of her performance – from concerned to tense, to fraught, to panicked, to frenzied… brilliantly done.
It’s a very simple film and all the better for it, telling a story in a straightforward way with no tricks and only one break in the choronology, when Aida thinks back to a happier time when the same people who are now bundling people into buses for slaughter were her neighbours, drinking and dancing and sharing their lives together.
It’s a companion piece with Zbanic’s superb 2006 film Grbavica (aka Esma’s Secret), which examined the aftermath of the Bosnian war from one traumatised woman’s point of view. Though played by a different actor, Aida could be the same woman.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021