Film Review: Searing Drama ‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’ Reckons With War Crimes Committed Under International Watch6 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
Aida is a translator for the UN in the small town of Srebrenica. When the Serbian army takes over the town, her family is among the thousands of citizens looking for shelter in the UN camp.
Director: Jasmila Žbanić
Cast: Jasna Đuričić, Izudin Bajrović, Boris Isaković, Johan Heldenbergh, Raymond Thiry, Emir Hadžihafizbegović
Country: Bosnia and Herzegovina
Language: Bosnian, English, Serbian, Dutch
Runtime: 102 minutes
Bosnian drama Quo Vadis, Aida? makes a deafening statement on the importance of war films, detailing the quiet pandemonium otherwise lost between news headlines and documentary narrations. Dedicating a film to the needless casualties of the three-year-long Siege of Srebenica and, subsequently, the Srebenica Massacre, which claimed over 8000 lives alone, feels like an impossible task. The lack of emotions is never an issue in such a topic; the challenge comes in looking to stem and distil the endless tides of pain and trauma.
Yet, the barrage of emotions in the award-winning film never feels overwhelming despite the omnipresent tension. It remains pointed with zero sympathies for the event’s perpetrators yet never completely raises its voice in complete disdain — its pained whisper, shared by tens of thousands of women, trembling from shellshock and trauma already speaks volumes.
Taking place in 1995, Quo Vadis, Aida? details the days after the Army of Republika Srpska took over the city of Srebrenica, as United Nations translator Aida (Jasna Đuričić) struggles between her job and protecting her fleeing family — husband Nihad (Izudin Bajrović), and sons Hamdija (Boris Ler) and Sejo (Dino Bajrović).
Guns and shells are heard only in the bookends of the film but Quo Vadis, Aida? never relents with its tensity; it almost feels like a thriller, with one hurdle immediately followed by another. The film is placed within the fortunately rare yet undoubtedly one-too-many situation of survival adrenaline catching up with sheer exhaustion. Every shout for help is muffled by pain while citizens lumber from one point to another, dazed and directionless. There are far too many quiet moments in the film, not of peace but of defeat, mainly broken apart by orders and bellows of military men.
The events depicted here will definitely feel foreign and intimidating for audiences in our region. However, the film’s magnification on a singular story is remarkably effective at retelling the atrocities committed during the Srebenica Massacre. It’s also a searing commentary on the incompetence of international bystanders, particularly the UN.
Quo Vadis, Aida? is unabashedly pointed in this latter aspect, especially when the catastrophe remains one of the most damning examples of the UN’s toothlessness in international peacekeeping. There are plenty of on-the-nose moments, such as with Colonel Thom (Johan Heldenbergh), one of the commanders of the UN base, lashing out at superiors for being completely absent in providing any assistance to peacekeeping efforts. Even more pressing and frustrating is how Aida’s most immediate challenges come not from the approaching Serbian army, but the UN bureaucracies she has to navigate and negotiate to ensure her family’s safety.
Also in the film’s warpath is the international audience — albeit with a far more subtle approach. A film about a massacre being rated any less than an R21 rating may seem puzzling, but there is a purpose here. Quo Vadis, Aida? is seemingly filtered through the eye of a news broadcast, often completely looking away from visual carnage while remaining as stern as the medium demands. How General Ratko Mladić (Boris Isaković), the leader of the invading Serbian forces, is constantly followed by a broadcast camera, essentially putting on a performance while proclaiming lies to refugees and at the negotiating table, only adds layers to this interpretation.
All these storytelling elements constantly build frustration and anger, only to be balanced by the film’s profound humanity. There is hurt and suffering around every corner yet it is the rare silent moments shared within Aida’s family and with her countrymen that emerge as the most emphatic.
This is most effectively brought out — interestingly enough — by its depiction of smoking. Poignant moments of unity see Aida’s family share and pass around a cigarette, while countrymen quite readily share sticks or psychedelics amongst strangers. It’s a simple storytelling addition that uses cigarettes as a symbol that establishes relationships between characters. When a UN Colonel lights up a cigarette for a war criminal, this small moment makes a thundering statement.
Quo Vadis, Aida? features a terrific cast, anchored by Đuričić’s heartrending performance in the lead. She perfectly carries the film’s confrontational tone, and completely melts into the role with how well she brings across the sheer exhaustion found amongst fleeing refugees in constant survival mode; bringing across fatigue that does not even allow for cathartic breakdowns. Heldenbergh must require a mention as well for his role as Colonel Thom, with the constant acknowledgement that he has to shoulder the weight of military duty and the blood spilt on his watch.
Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is its pacing, with its core story sticking to only a handful of key beats; its simplicity seems to be the perfect conduit for the unfathomable depth of emotions behind the event’s survivors to take centre stage. The film’s greatest, most lasting impact lies in how it never completely lashes out, sticking to control over unbridled anger. Quo Vadis, Aida? is a searing introduction to the Bosnian War, armed with countless tempestuous moments that are bound to sear the human cost of war into memory.
Tickets for Quo Vadis, Aida?, part of Singapore Film Society’s “SFS Showcase #2: Politics & Humanity”, is now on sale for screenings on 10 July and 17 July. The showcase will also be featuring Kenyan documentary Softie, which details one family man’s dream to contest in the Kenyan elections amidst the country’s long history of corruption and violence. Grab your tickets for both films from the Singapore Film Society website.
“SFS Showcase #2: Politics & Humanity”, the second of a continuing series of curated film programmes extending into the third and fourth quarters of the year, looks to bring audiences to witness the human side of politics through two deeply personal stories set in volatile socio-political environments.