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Quo Vadis, Aida? – Jasmila Žbanić
Courtesy of Curzon

How Quo Vadis, Aida? subverts all expectations of historical trauma movies

Jasmila Žbanić discusses her Oscar-nominated film – a gripping, devastating drama that unfolds in the 24 hours before the Srebrenica massacre, with a clear and ambitious eye on tragedy 25 years on

In July 1995, 8,372 Muslim civilians were murdered by Bosnian Serb soldiers in Srebrenica, a Bosnian town erroneously declared a safe area by the UN. To this day, buried corpses are still being discovered and relatives are identifying partial skeletons through clothes that didn’t perish. General Ratko Mladić, the Bosnian Serb military commander who ordered the massacre, was captured in 2011; after a trial spanning years in the Hague, he received a life sentence for war crimes and genocide. Yet when Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Žbanić considered shooting Quo Vadis, Aida? in Srebrenica, she knew it wasn’t possible – the current mayor, Mladen Grujičić, is a genocide denier.

Given that Grujičić is not the only high-profile figure to deny that genocide took place in Srebrenica, Quo Vadis, Aida? holds extra power for ensuring that future generations know what really happened. The gripping, sensitively handled war-drama, which was written and directed by Žbanić, mostly unfolds in the 24 hours leading up to the killings. While keeping any bloodshed off-screen, the gut-wrenching film examines how the UN allowed 8,372 strategised deaths to occur within a few days. As a result, Quo Vadis, Aida? was nominated at the BAFTAs for Best Film Not in the English Language and Best Director (Žbanić received a nod ahead of David Fincher and Emerald Fennell), and is up for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars.

“Even if Quo Vadis, Aida? is a film about the past, I think it tells us a lot about our present, especially for my region,” Žbanić informs me, in early April, over Zoom from her home in Sarajevo. “So many things here are denied. Many people say this genocide never happened. But also, in the world, so many things are putting democracy in danger. I watched the riots in Congress in the US, and thought: this is how war in Bosnia started. There were people who didn’t agree with democratic decisions, and then, with violence, they took over certain institutions and made war.”

By July 1995, Srebrenica had already experienced three years of the Bosnian War. When Bosnian Serb forces overrun the area, the townspeople face two options: either flee and risk being shot in the woods; or take shelter in a UN camp manned by Dutch soldiers. So in a Potočari compound, terrified, starving members of the public huddle on concrete, believing that the UN will protect them. Meanwhile, a UN translator, Aida (Jasna Djuricic), suspects otherwise. Her impossible job involves picking up a loudspeaker and translating to the crowd whatever lies the UN and Serbian officials instruct her to relay. Through Aida, the refugees are eventually ordered to board buses, some for men, some for women, all supposedly to somewhere safe. In truth, the male passengers – including children – are all executed as part of “ethnic cleansing”.

Žbanić, 46 now, was a teenager in Sarajevo when the Bosnian war broke out and attended school during the siege. In 2000, she made Red Rubber Boots, an 18-minute documentary about grieving Bosnian mothers searching for their children’s bodies. So was Žbanić’s initial impulse to depict the events with a documentary? “No,” she says. “My first film (Grbavica) was about the 50,000 women who were raped during the Bosnian war. I thought a documentary would hurt these people, asking them to go through their stories. I felt the same with the Srebrenica issue. I love documentaries, but with fiction, you allow the audience to identify with Aida and go through those moments in real time. What were the dilemmas? What were the choices that so many had to make?”

Quo Vadis, Aida? sticks tightly to Aida as she fears for her and her family’s fate. Due to her role with the UN, Aida rushes freely around the shelter by pointing at her badge, and so she attempts to smuggle her husband and two sons into unoccupied corners of the building. However, in doing so, is Aida accepting everyone else’s demise? When an acquaintance pleads with Aida to take her son too, Aida doesn’t pause to help – she cannot risk jeopardising her own children’s safety.

“I didn’t want to show Aida as a saint,” Žbanić explains. “She’s not. She’s a human being in a hard situation. I can say now in my comfortable position, ‘I would save all the kids, not only my kids.’ But when you’re in a war, your humanity is shrinking.” She adds, “Even though when you write a synopsis you have to say the film is about genocide, for me it’s a film about a mother who’s protecting her family.”

“I love documentaries, but with fiction, you allow the audience to identify with Aida and go through those moments in real time. What were the dilemmas? What were the choices that so many had to make?” – Jasmila Žbanić 

To depict the events accurately, Žbanić researched the film for five years. Camcorder footage of Mladić addressing a coach of petrified women (it’s on YouTube, if you can stomach it) is recreated almost word for word in the movie. Aida, though, is loosely fictional. Žbanić purchased the rights to Under the UN Flag, a memoir by Hasan Nuhanović, a UN translator who lost his mother, father and brother to the massacre. “Like Aida, Hasan had to translate to his family, ‘Now you have to leave the base.’ I experienced with documentaries how difficult it is for people to see their own story on the screen. It was hard for him to understand why I had to change certain things.”

While there is one onscreen encounter between Mladić and Colonel Karremans, the unhelpful UN figure, in reality they conversed multiple times. “But film has its own language. Putting in three meetings would bore the audience. I was always measuring: is it truthful? Is it ethical? And it was important how survivors saw the film. Some of them would love that I was more harsh when showing the Serbs. Some told me, ‘You didn’t show the killing of babies.’ These facts, I knew. But I had to make sure the audience was able to follow it. It’s true that the reality was even harsher, but it’s still a fictional film, and you have to respect the laws of filmmaking.”

Žbanić’s first three features – Berlinale-winning Grbavica, On the Path and For Those Who Can Tell No Tales – were serious, weighty dramas exploring the aftermath of the Bosnian War. However, Žbanić also studied puppeteering and clowning in her youth. Her 2014 sex comedy, Love Island, momentarily includes Ariane Labed snogging a mermaid underwater as they head-bop to Rammstein. 30 minutes into Quo Vadis, Aida?, Aida experiences a dizzying, musical, pre-war flashback to her and her pals partying in a “best hair” competition – it could be straight out of Love Island (the film, not the TV show).

“People who read the script said, ‘You shouldn’t do this (flashback).’ But it was important to show them as human beings. They’re capable of being silly and happy. They celebrated New Year’s Eve, and had this funny competition for their hair. They were not always victims who didn’t have anything to eat. I didn’t want to put it at the beginning of the film and say, ‘OK, they lived nicely, and then shit happened.’ No, I wanted to have it in that moment. Even during editing, people were saying, ‘This is really risky.’”

“War has so many images that are aestheticised or shown as sexy. My feeling of war is that there’s nothing beautiful there” – Jasmila Žbanić 

Otherwise, Quo Vadis, Aida? is as tense as they come. As Aida’s mission is literally life-or-death, each action, each conversation, even which room she dives into could determine whether or not her family die. On second viewing, the split-second choices are extra painful, especially when juxtaposed with the lack of empathy from work colleagues whose admin decisions could save her children from execution; when Aida offers to sacrifice her life in order to save a son, a Dutch soldier with a UN helmet retorts, “Stop begging.”

Ultimately, Aida cannot save her husband or sons from being dragged to a nearby cinema where guns appear through the windows and a Bosnian Serb soldier yells, “Now you will watch the real movie.” There was, in fact, a movie theatre in Srebrenica where, along with farms and factories, mass executions took place. “Cinemas were built to unite people, to give them a beautiful side of life, to give them poetry and entertainment. These guys transformed it into destruction and ugliness.”

During the gunshots, Žbanić takes the camera outside, capturing the reaction of children playing football on an adjacent street. The violence isn’t visualised but it’s never denied. “The audience can imagine certain things, maybe even better than directors can show,” Žbanić explains. “I wanted to have respect towards the people who died, and not show them in that moment when they’re not in control, and not people anymore. War has so many images that are aestheticised or shown as sexy. My feeling of war is that there’s nothing beautiful there. Maybe because I survived the war in Bosnia, I’m a woman who’s not attracted by guns and weapons. On the contrary, I dislike them so much, I never wanted this kind of spectacle of war to be appealing to the audience.”

Throughout the film, I kept thinking that, in 2021, the massacre would’ve been prevented by social media and the ability to spread information at the click of a button. But then I wasn’t so sure. After all, there appears to be relatively little being done about how China’s government are reportedly treating the Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang. Is that a relevant comparison? “You are completely right,” Žbanić says. “I was also thinking the other day about that. The fact we know about something, it doesn’t make us proactive. It’s a problem. But I would compare the situation in Sarajevo, where I was during the war, and there were so many foreign journalists in Sarajevo informing the world what was happening at that moment. There were lots of killings, but I feel it would have been worse if there were no journalists always sending reports.

“In Srebrenica at that time, and almost through the whole period, there were no journalists. To kill 8,372 people in a few days was only possible because nobody was there. I have a feeling that, still, when we know something, certain things are better. The fact that information is coming out of China as well means that maybe something will change. Who knows? Many times, it was hidden, but now we know about it. So I hope that people will do something, that we don’t let other people suffer, whoever it is. I don’t care about religion or nation. I really think nobody deserves to suffer.”

If Quo Vadis, Aida? wins an Oscar, it could help spark a worldwide discussion about how past mistakes can’t be repeated, as well as placing more pressure on genocide deniers. Among Žbanić’s Oscar campaigners are Angelina Jolie (“Angelina suggested having an interview for TIME to support the film”) and Mike Leigh (“the first person that came to mind that I would love to show my film to was Mike”).

For the actual Oscars ceremony, this year’s producer, Steven Soderbergh, has banned Zoom, referring to it as the Z-word. Žbanić was planning on flying to LA and quarantining for 10 days, but Soderbergh recently offered an alternate option: a trip to London and quarantining for five days. “I will probably do London, but I’m still deciding. And then Paris was mentioned, but that was cancelled. It’s definitely a strange year. I’m sorry for the people at the Academy.”

Even if Quo Vadis, Aida? doesn’t win an Oscar, its nomination has already brought it to the attention of more viewers. “People who see the film, they have really good reactions, because they see that the film is not manipulating facts, but, on the contrary, is really taking care of every fact,” Žbanić says. “People see that the film isn’t propaganda that wants to blame any side. This is really what happened. And especially young people are writing to me, saying that they always knew that the narrative about Srebrenica – what they were taught in school, or what they heard in the Serbian media – they always felt something was wrong with this narrative. Watching the film, what was missing was suddenly there. A lot of people in Serbia are telling me they had a cathartic moment after watching the film, and realising what happened at that time.”

While the film isn’t officially banned in Serbia and Republika Srpska, distributors are too afraid to pick it up, even after its Oscar nomination. “They know that the government will hurt them in some way, that maybe the right-wing will protest in front of cinemas or demolish the cinema. We decided to show the film on VOD platforms, in Serbia as well. This kind of censorship – not official censorship, but censorship out of fear – is overcome by streaming possibilities. As a director, I’m sorry people aren’t watching it in cinemas. But because I know it’ll never be in a cinema (in Serbia), it’s better people have a chance to see it without any fear in their apartments.”

Quo Vadis, Aida? can be streamed now at Curzon Home Cinema