Quo Vadis, Aida?

Aida with Colonel Karremans

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.

Boris Isakovic as Ratko Mladic
Enter Ratko Mladic

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.

Quo Vadis, Aida? – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Grbavica – Land of My Dreams

Luna Mijovic and Mirjana Karanovic in Grabavica: Land of My Dreams


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



11 July


The Srebrenica massacre, 1995

On this day in 1995, the killing began of more than 8,000 Bosniaks (ie Bosnian Muslims) in Srebrenica as part of the ongoing Bosnian War. They were killed by the Bosnian Serb Army under the command of General Ratko Mladic. At the time the enclave of Srebrenica was under the safekeeping of a United Nations Protection Force. But the Serbs were well organised, well armed and motivated by what they saw as the loss of territory vital to any continuing hopes of an independent Serbia. And, having blockaded the town for months, on 6 July they started breaking through the UN observation posts. The 400 UN troops were almost as badly supplied as the inhabitants of the town, who had begun dying of starvation, and the Serbs broke through easily, accepting the surrender of the Netherlands troops and killing any male Muslim Bosnians they encountered. It was Europe’s worst mass atrocity since the Second World War.




Esma’s Secret aka Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams (2006, dir: Jasmila Zbanic)

It tends to be men who fight wars but the women who pick up the pieces. In an intensely practical fashion if this fascinating drama by female director Jasmila Zbanic is to be believed. Esma (Mirjana Karanovic) lives in Sarajevo, where she works in a nightclub. She’s struggling to make ends meet, especially with a 15 year old daughter to take care of. But she still finds time for the occasional visit to a group therapy session for Bosnian women traumatised by the war and by the 46 month siege of the city. Though Esma herself never says anything while she’s there. In fact her face seems to be saying something about these sessions that her presence is denying – that they are in some way contemptible. Why would she feel like this? These are her people after all. But back to the nightclub, where Esma is slowly striking up some kind of a relationship with a bouncer. As it does in a country that’s recently been at war, their conversation turns to post mortems and the digging up and identifying of people slain in barbarous circumstances. Except we’re not in a barbaric land; we’re in a country plugged into mainstream civilisation, as every shred of Esma’s Secret (also going by the title Grabavica: Land of My Dreams in some countries) has, until this point reinforced, right down to the poster of Keira Knightley that Esma’s daughter has on her wall.
Zbanic’s film is about making the familiar strange again, and then the strange shocking – how come there was murder and mayhem in this place, where now there is music and pole-dancers, and coffee in streetside cafes? Cunningly, what might be a heavy-handed tract is hidden inside twin-track rites of passage arcs for both Esma’s daughter, and Esma herself. Because as the mother becomes closer to the mysterious bouncer Pelda (Leon Lucev), her daughter Sara (Luna Mijovic) is starting a relationship with a boy in her class at school, a kid who like her was made an orphan by the war.
In a series of beautifully observed and played scenes that offer little observable drama but plenty down where it matters, the mother and daughter slowly edge towards an understanding of the effects of the war on them, and what they have to do to pack it on its way and get on with their lives. Maybe that explains the look on Esma’s face at the self-help meetings: the inability to move on, her continuing to dwell in a region too painful to be useful. There’s another more practical reason, too, which you might work out before the end of this mournfully beautiful film that has intelligent and disquieting things to say about the way women deal with conflict.



Why Watch?


  • Beautiful performances
  • An in-your-face drama about a war few in the world were interested in
  • The debut of a talented writer/director
  • A reminder of the thin veneer of civilisation


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Grabavica: Land of My Dreams – Watch it now at Amazon