Films set among genocide can border on “trauma porn,” while a few like “Life Is Beautiful” and “The Pianist” reach divine heights by setting deeply human stories amongst unimaginable horrors. “Quo Vadis, Aida?”, the latest film from celebrated Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Žbanic, is one such transcendent entry into the genre. The fact that the tragedy at its center is rarely remembered outside of its region makes it all the more powerful as a vital work of art.
The film dramatizes the horrific events of the Srebrenica massacre, otherwise known as the Srebrenica genocide, during which Serbian troops sent 8,372 Bosniak men and boys to their deaths in July 1995. Named for its fearless protagonist, “Quo Vadis, Aida?” exposes the events through the eyes of a mother named Aida (Jasna Ðuričić), a schoolteacher who works with the United Nations as a translator. After three and a half years under siege, the town of Srebrenica, close to the northeastern Serbian border, was declared a UN “safety zone” in 1993 and put under the protection of a Dutch battalion working for the UN.
The film opens with Aida translating a negotiation between the town mayor and a Dutch colonel. She’s a neutral observer, but the exchange escalates quickly and leaves town officials feeling uneasy. A man and his two adult sons evacuate their modest apartment, hurrying through mundane tasks like borrowing sneakers and emptying the cash box. Despite the UN’s promises, bombs begin to descend and the entire town evacuates to the Dutch-controlled UN base. However, the base can only hold so many and nearly 20,000 people are stranded outside, straining toward the wire fence separating them from their promised shelter.
Competent and steadfast, Aida bounces between the doctor and other high-ranking officers, dutifully translating their panicked orders and mixed signals. In between tasks, she scurries away to find her husband and sons, the three men from the earlier domestic scene. They didn’t make it onto the base, so Aida convinces the officers to let them in: When the Republika Srpska general Mladic (Boris Isaković) demands a civilian committee to act as negotiators, she shrewdly volunteers her husband, earning him and their sons passage.
Huddled together on the base, where people have nowhere to relieve themselves, her son lights up a cigarette. “What did I say about smoking?”, Aida chides, as her husband tells her to let up. “My birthday is in two days,” her younger son remarks, and the family exchange bittersweet smiles. Such moments of respite are brief, although Aida does allow herself a small toke of a joint shared by a young nurse. As she closes her eyes and dozes off briefly, she is transported to happier times — a colorful party with familiar faces laughing and dancing. Holding hands in a circle, each figure gazes directly into the camera as they round the dance floor.
Žbanic builds tension slowly, never dropping the pressure but allowing the characters (and audience) room to breathe amongst the chaos. Up until the film’s harrowing final moments, the director only alludes to the most horrific details, keeping these just offscreen. A distant silhouette of a man shitting in the crowd; a potentially lethal armed search that ends with loaves of bread flying overhead; an attractive young woman dragged off to an unseen fate. It’s a merciful choice, and an effective one: The audience remains in Aida’s cautiously optimistic shoes, convinced she will find a way to save her family despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s an elegant way to tell a war story that preserves the characters’ humanity, but make the inevitable tragic ending all the more devastating.
Like her debut film “Grbavica,” which received the Berinale’s Golden Bear in 2006, Žbanic continues to center women’s perspectives in her work. War films are too often the realm of male directors, with their relentless violence and explosive action scenes. And yet, as Bosniaks know too well, too often it is women who must bear the brunt of war traumas and are left to pick up the pieces.
In “Quo Vaids, Aida?”, Žbanic lays bare the deeply human toll of violence and war. It’s not all IEDs and secret missions, which can glorify a trauma most filmmakers never endured. The simpler horrors are far more haunting: the former classmate sitting across from you with a gun, or the torturer wishing you good day years later. Beyond bullet holes and body counts, unimaginable atrocities give way to everyday indignities, thousands of tiny cuts overlaid on the unbearable weight of memory.
“Quo vadis, Aida?” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 13. It is currently seeking distribution.