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'Quo Vadis, Aida?' Reckons With The Devastating Legacy Of The Bosnian War

Mar 16, 2021
Originally published on March 16, 2021 12:39 pm

When a violent ethnic conflict broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, the writer-director Jasmila Zbanic was a teenager in Sarajevo, where she would spend the next three years living under siege.

The instability and violence of that era would indelibly shape Zbanic's later work as a filmmaker: In movies like Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams and For Those Who Can Tell No Tales, she explored the aftermath of the war and the deep scars it left in her country's psyche.

Zbanic's new film, Quo Vadis, Aida?, is her most direct reckoning yet with the legacy of the Bosnian war. It dramatizes the events of July 1995 in the town of Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslims, most of them men and boys, were murdered by the Bosnian Serb Army.

The story is extraordinarily tense, but Zbanic tells it with great compassion and restraint: No graphic bloodshed is shown on-screen. Zbanic knows that war films have given us no shortage of devastating images, and here she seeks to convey the magnitude of an historic tragedy — the worst European massacre since World War II — without turning violence into spectacle.

Zbanic tells the story from one woman's perspective. The protagonist is a schoolteacher from Srebrenica named Aida, played in a brilliant performance by Jasna Duricic. She now works as a translator for Dutch peacekeeping troops assigned by the United Nations to protect the town. Aida's job grants her early access to key information, and it's through her eyes and ears that we learn that the U.N. forces are badly outnumbered and won't be able to keep advancing Serbian troops from taking over Srebrenica.

And so thousands of civilians flee the town and head for a nearby U.N. base, where some manage to take refuge inside and others are forced to wait outside in the hot July sun. Aida's badge allows her to move freely about the compound, and for much of the movie, briskly shot by the cinematographer Christine A. Maier, the camera races to keep up with her as she darts from one task to the next. In one scene, Aida's translating for wounded refugees; in another, she's pleading with blue-helmeted U.N. soldiers to let her husband and son inside the base safely.

Before long the Serbian troops show up at the U.N. base, claiming to be looking for Muslim soldiers in hiding. Soon they begin separating everyone by gender and forcing them onto buses, claiming they'll be transported to safety.

We now know the real-life outcome, a tragic result that might have been very different had the peacekeepers held their ground, and Quo Vadis, Aida? is a damning portrait of not only the Serbian army but also the Dutch U.N. soldiers for failing to stand against them — and for the United Nations itself, which tried to remain "neutral" in a politically fraught humanitarian situation.

The Latin phrase quo vadis? — which means "Where are you going?" — is a reference to an apocryphal New Testament story about how the apostle Peter fled Rome but ultimately mustered the courage to return and face his death by crucifixion. Quo Vadis, Aida? is thus a fitting title for the story of a woman who's constantly on the move under impossible circumstances.

Đuricic plays Aida with a mix of keen intelligence and fierce maternal instinct. Because of her position, Aida knows before nearly anyone else that the situation is dire. Zbanic doesn't judge Aida for doing what anyone might do, using her access and her connections to try and save her family from a horrifying fate.

But what makes the movie remarkable is that even as it remains tightly focused on Aida, it never loses sight of the other stories unfolding around her. Zbanic can't do all of them justice, of course, but there's piercing humanity in the details she shows us, whether it's a couple impulsively making out while people around them are sleeping, or a hungry crowd grabbing at loaves of bread and boxes of chocolate that are being handed out. These may be simple, universal acts of survival, but no less than anything else we see in this heartrending film, they deserve to be remembered.

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic, Justin Chang, has a review of the new Bosnian drama "Quo Vadis, Aida?", which was just nominated for an Academy Award for best international feature. The movie is set in 1995 toward the end of the Bosnian war.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: When a violent ethnic conflict broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, the writer-director Jasmila Zbanic was a teenager in Sarajevo, where she would spend the next three years living under siege. The instability and violence of that era would indelibly shape Zbanic's later work as a filmmaker. In movies like "Grbavica: The Land Of My Dreams" and "For Those Who Can Tell No Tales," she explored the aftermath of the war and the deep scars it left in her country's psyche.

Zbanic's new film, "Quo Vadis, Aida?", is her most direct reckoning yet with the legacy of the Bosnian war. It dramatizes the events of July 1995 in the town of Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslims, most of them men and boys, were murdered by the Bosnian Serb army.

The story is extraordinarily tense, but Zbanic tells it with great compassion and restraint. No graphic bloodshed is shown on-screen. Zbanic knows that war films have given us no shortage of devastating images, and here, she seeks to convey the magnitude of an historic tragedy - the worst European massacre since World War II - without turning violence into spectacle.

Zbanic tells the story from one woman's perspective. The protagonist is a schoolteacher from Srebrenica named Aida, played in a brilliant performance by Jasna Duricic. She now works as a translator for Dutch peacekeeping troops assigned by the United Nations to protect the town. Aida's job grants her early access to key information, and it's through her eyes and ears that we learn that the U.N. forces are badly outnumbered and won't be able to keep advancing Serbian troops from taking over Srebrenica. And so thousands of civilians flee the town and head for a nearby U.N. base, where some manage to take refuge inside and others are forced to wait outside in the hot July sun. Aida's badge allows her to move freely about the compound.

And for much of the movie, briskly shot by the cinematographer Christine A. Maier, the camera races to keep up with her as she darts from one task to the next. In one scene, she's translating for wounded refugees. In another, she's pleading with blue-helmeted U.N. soldiers to let her husband and son inside the base safely. Here, Aida is interpreting for a U.N. official who's calling for civilian volunteers to negotiate with the Serbs.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "QUO VADIS, AIDA?")

JASNA DJURICIC: (As Aida Selmanagic) They are suggesting that Muharem goes. He's a local businessman.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I need two more people, educated.

DJURICIC: (As Aida Selmanagic, non-English spoken). My husband was the school headmaster. If he goes, would you would let my family come inside the base?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We can't allow anyone else inside.

DJURICIC: (As Aida Selmanagic) He's one of the most educated people in Srebrenica. He speaks German. You won't find anyone more suitable here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Can I have two more representatives?

DJURICIC: (As Aida Selmanagic, non-English language spoken).

CHANG: The negotiations that follow are a total sham. Before long, the Serbian troops show up at the U.N. base, claiming to be looking for Muslim soldiers in hiding. Soon, they begin separating everyone by gender and forcing them onto buses, claiming they'll be transported to safety. We now know the real-life outcome would have been very different had the peacekeepers held their ground. And "Quo Vadis, Aida?" is a damning portrait of not only the Serbian army but also the United Nations for failing to stand against them and trying to remain neutral in a politically fraught situation. The Latin phrase quo vadis, which means, where are you going? - is a reference to an apocryphal New Testament story about how the apostle Peter fled Rome but ultimately mustered the courage to return and face his death by crucifixion. "Quo Vadis, Aida?" is thus a fitting title for the story of a woman who's constantly on the move under impossible circumstances.

Jasna Djuricic plays Aida with a mix of keen intelligence and fierce maternal instinct. Because of her position, Aida knows before nearly anyone else that the situation is dire. Zbanic doesn't judge Aida for doing what anyone might do, using her access and her connections to try and save her family from a horrifying fate. But what makes the movie remarkable is that even as it remains tightly focused on Aida, it never loses sight of the other stories unfolding around her. Zbanic can't do all of them justice, of course, but there's piercing humanity in the details she shows us whether it's a couple impulsively making out while people around them are sleeping or a hungry crowd grabbing at loaves of bread and boxes of chocolate that are being handed out. These may be simple, universal acts of survival, but no less than anything else we see in this heartrending film, they deserve to be remembered.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new film "Quo Vadis, Aida?" which has been nominated for an Academy Award for best international feature. You can see it streaming on virtual cinemas across the country.

On tomorrow's show, we speak with Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2017. His novels "Remains Of The Day" and "Never Let Me Go" were adapted into films. Born in Nagasaki nine years after the atom bomb, he moved with his family to England when he was 5. Book critic Maureen Corrigan calls his new novel a masterpiece. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "THE BALANCE")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering help today from Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "THE BALANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.