High on the list of achievements of the Bosnian drama Quo Vadis, Aida? must be its success in dramatising the hours leading up to the Srebrenica genocide – where more than 8,000 men and boys were killed in July 1995 – without showing anything more violent than a slap in the face. As this besieged mountain town, a supposed UN safe zone, is overrun by Bosnian Serb forces led by Ratko Mladic (Boris Isakovic), soldiers are seen looting houses and opening fire. A “formal ultimatum” issued by the UN, which threatened air strikes if the Serbs advanced, was about as realistic a deterrent as the toy helicopter we glimpse on the steps of a ransacked home.
The Bosnian Muslim civilians who make it out of Srebrenica are heading for the Dutch military compound, where UN peace- keepers represent their only hope of sanctuary. Someone asks whether it wouldn’t be safer to head for the woods. “Are you crazy?” replies Aida Selmanagic (Jasna Ðuricic), a Bosnian interpreter. “They can’t touch the UN!”
Aida has the air of a harried concert promoter as she barges and bustles around the crowded base, chain-smoking and flashing her laminated UN pass as she goes. Her duties include translating stand-offs between military personnel. During one such pow-wow, the Dutch Colonel Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh), an ineffectual figure in danger of being unbalanced by his own moustache, rejects the idea that he will be accountable if UN planes fail to materialise. He is merely the piano player, he insists. One question inherent in this resolutely angry film is whether neutrality at Srebrenica became indivisible from cowardice and even collaboration.
There are times when Aida, too, has to brush aside the emotional demands of her fellow Bosnians (“I’m just an interpreter, grandmother,” she tells an elderly woman) but she also has her own worries. Her 17-year-old son, Sejo (Dino Bajrovic), has made it inside; as she races to and fro, she finds time to give him a little tweak of the nose. But her husband and elder son are still out there somewhere among the tens of thousands of refugees. The challenge is to get them into the compound now that the Dutch soldiers have closed the gates.
The writer-director Jasmila Žbanic captures the scope of the crisis and handles the daunting crowd scenes lucidly. She has an eye for glinting details amid the pandemonium, from the Jean-Claude Van Damme poster on the wall in Sejo’s bedroom, to the teeny Toblerone bars handed out by Mladic as a sinister sweetener to the population he is about to devastate. By the end of the film, Aida’s struggle to save her family has been reduced to petty bureaucratic details: names on a piece of paper, the problems posed by a broken printer.
Aida is a fictional character, her experiences inspired by those of the former UN interpreter Hasan Nuhanovic, though some of the men around her are real. These include Major Franken (Raymond Thiry), who reacts to Aida’s claims that people are being slaughtered by upbraiding her for spreading rumours, and Karremans, whose response to those same reports is to lock himself in his office. “Leave me alone,” he grumbles like a truculent teenager.
And, of course, Mladic, the “butcher of Bosnia”, who brings his own cameraman with him as he surveys the rubble of the fallen town (“Film that flag!”) or sips coffee with terrified refugees at the Fontana Hotel. The actual documentary footage shot by Mladic’s cronies can still be seen on YouTube, proving that many of the movie’s most chilling lines and uncomfortable ironies (such as when a refugee points out to Mladic that she was at school with one of his soldiers, who now sits across the table from her) were not invented for dramatic purposes.
It would diminish Quo Vadis, Aida?, however, to suggest that Žbanic has merely adapted reality. Rather, she has shaped the factual into an eloquent and conscientious picture that purrs along as suspensefully as any ticking-bomb thriller, using Ðuricic’s performance as its engine. Few screen mothers since Anna Magnani in Mamma Roma have projected such elemental strength. “Please don’t make me use force,” a Dutch soldier warns Aida as he tries to expel her family. “Use it,” she spits back defiantly.
Ðuricic is on screen for most of the film, her face tight with suppressed panic and pain as she runs, rages, pleads but never cries – at least not until near the end, when Žbanic shoots boldly against the grain of the emotion, holding the scene in a wide shot while Aida claps a hand to her face and stifles her sobs. The final scene of Quo Vadis, Aida? depicts a class of primary school children dancing on stage, their peek-a-boo, see-no-evil hand gestures playing out in creepy slow-motion. It’s an unequivocal, wordless indictment of all those nations, the US and UK prominent among them, who knew what was about to happen and looked away.
“Quo Vadis, Aida?” is streaming on Curzon Home Cinema
Quo Vadis, Aida? (15)
dir: Jasmila Žbanic
This article appears in the 27 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Lost