'Quo Vadis, Aida?' Asks: Where Does A Society Go After War Ends?

Apr 14, 2021
Originally published on April 14, 2021 11:56 pm

Filmmaker Jasmila Zbanic was a 17-year-old student living in Sarajevo with her family when the Bosnian war began in April 1992. As clashes over Bosnia's referendum for independence first started, she says nobody imagined there could ever be a full war. "It started like [the] riots on Congress in January in [the] U.S. ... I was happy when this happened because I thought what a cool thing not to go to school and have [the] whole city stop," she says.

Instead, the ensuing siege of Sarajevo became part of the longest and bloodiest armed conflict in Europe since World War II. The experience marked Zbanic as a young woman — and as an artist — and her award-winning films have explored the legacy of war with a particular focus on women's stories. Her latest film Quo Vadis, Aida? is among the nominees for this year's Oscars for Best International Feature and it dramatizes the genocide of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in July 1995.

Journalist Christiane Amanpour, who covered the war for CNN, says she was "gobsmacked" by the film and it took her right back to the asymmetry of that conflict. "I was a young woman in my first real war and it took me several weeks, maybe a couple of months, to understand that in Bosnia there was no question that there was an aggressor, clearly defined and there were victims, clearly defined. The aggressors were white Christians who were the Serbs and the Bosnian Serbs. The victims were white European Muslims and the aim of the aggressor was exactly the definition of genocide: to destroy a community in part or in whole based on their ethnicity."

Zbanic spent years researching the real-world politics and mass violence that unfolded in Srebrenica but she says she knew she was also creating a piece of cinema. "Media are dealing with numbers or shocking images but cinema allows us to identify with characters and spend time with them and be with their decisions, having [the] feeling that it's in real time," she says.

An audience can imagine many things so I didn't show blood and violence in an obvious way. I really think we don't have to see men in blood to know that they were all killed. - Filmmaker Jasmila Žbanić

Her version eschews on-screen violence and widescreen battles for a more immersive and intimate experience than traditional Hollywood war films. "I just respect [the] audience very much and I know that [an] audience can imagine many things so I didn't show blood and violence in an obvious way. I really think we don't have to see men in blood to know that they were all killed."

Zbanic tells the story of Srebrenica through Aida, a former teacher working as a translator for the United Nations forces. Played by acclaimed Serbian actress Jasna Duricic, Aida rushes between meetings and military negotiations as Srebrenica is ethnically cleansed, her own family joining the thousands of refugees outside the gates of the U.N. base seeking protection. Despite her privileged status as a United Nations employee, she is unable to ensure her own family's safety. Zbanic says the U.N. betrayed the people it sought to protect and Aida is a tragic character placed at the intersection of that impossible position. In a landmark 1999 report completed under then Secretary General Kofi Annan, the United Nations acknowledged its systemic failures to intervene and protect civilians in Srebrenica.

Despite being Bosnia's entry to this year's Oscars, for some viewers, the film has been simply too painful to watch. Amir Husak, who is a Bosnian filmmaker and scholar of media studies at The New School says, "I can tell you that many of my friends and family reported not being able to finish the film in one sitting. It's a collective trauma that we're speaking about and it brings back many painful memories."

Jasmila Žbanić wrote and directed Quo Vadis, Aida?
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More than 25 years after the events of Srebrenica, the bones of missing victims are still being found in mass graves surrounding the forests where the film is set. Zbanic says she has been following the stories of those discoveries and Quo Vadis, Aida? includes Aida's own search for closure in the present day. In this on screen portrayal, Zbanic says she wanted to pay tribute to the mothers of Srebrenica who have shown a way beyond the politics of vengeance.

"These women of Srebrenica are what we thought once saints are," Zbanic adds. "They are really going back and facing these perpetrators and there was not a single case of revenge. They shaped our country in completely unbelievable ways because they said no revenge, we just want people who did killings to be in prison and they are always talking about truth and justice, not revenge, and how we have to live together."

Therefore the film's title — Quo Vadis, Aida?taken from the apocryphal Christian tradition — asks the question at the heart of the film's story: where is Aida going and where does a society go after a war ends?

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Bosnian War ended 25 years ago, but remains are still being found in mass graves, and the region remains haunted by that conflict. A new film tells the story of the genocide that finally led to NATO's intervention in 1995. It's called "Quo Vadis, Aida?," and it's a nominee for this year's Oscars. Bilal Qureshi reports.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Filmmaker Jasmila Zbanic was 17 when the Bosnian War began in 1992.

JASMILA ZBANIC: It started like riots on Congress in January in U.S. - just some masked crazy people coming out. And we all thought, in a few days, it will be over. You know, I was happy when this happened because I thought, oh, what a cool thing not to go to school and have whole city stopped. So many crazy things are happening. We really didn't believe it will be war.

QURESHI: In reality, Bosnia became the longest and bloodiest European conflict since World War II.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAR AMBIENCE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Shouting in non-English language).

QURESHI: The ethnic cleansing and the international community's reluctance to act formed Jasmila Zbanic as a young woman and as an artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

QURESHI: "Quo Vadis, Aida?" tells the story of the defining moment in that war - the genocide of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys, civilians, by Serbian forces in the city of Srebrenica.

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

JASNA DJURICIC: (As Aida) You promised us that Serbs would not enter the town, that you would protect us.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I didn't promise anything.

QURESHI: The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival last fall.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: I was absolutely gobsmacked by it.

QURESHI: CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour covered Bosnia as a young war reporter.

AMANPOUR: It was the very first time since the Second World War that that kind of fascist, genocidal politics took place in Europe in, by the way, the full satellite TV zone. And the governments were watching this unfold and doing nothing until Srebrenica.

QURESHI: But "Quo Vadis, Aida?" is not journalism. It's a cinematic drama.

ZBANIC: Media are dealing with numbers or shocking images, but cinema allows us to identify with characters and spend time with them and be with their decisions, having feeling it in real time.

QURESHI: The character at the center of Jasmila Zbanic's film is a woman named Aida, who is working as a translator at the U.N. base in Srebrenica.

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

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, non-English language spoken).

DJURICIC: (As Aida) Srebrenica is in U.N. safe zone, and your mission is to protect people.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, non-English language spoken).

ZBANIC: And with this U.N. badge, she thinks she has privilege because not only that U.N. was in charge of protecting people but because she works for them. She felt she's part of U.N. and safe, so she believed her family is also safe.

QURESHI: But Aida is Bosnian. Refugees and desperate Muslim families, including her own, are huddled outside the gates of the U.N. base as Serbian forces march toward the crowd. They're refused protection.

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

DJURICIC: (As Aida) Please put my family on the list.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) We're dealing with the lives of thousands of people right now. If I add their names, I'll be jeopardizing the safety of all those with U.N. identity cards.

QURESHI: "Quo Vadis, Aida?" is an immersive and intimate war film. The music doesn't swell, and there are no harrowing montages of violence or widescreen battles.

ZBANIC: I just respect audience very much. And I know that audience can imagine many things, so I didn't show blood and violence in an obvious way. I really think we don't have to see men in blood to understand they were all killed. And also, out of respect for survivors, you know, I really wanted to treat every fact and every emotion as truthful as possible because I knew they will be watching film as well.

QURESHI: For some viewers, the results were too real to watch.

AMIR HUSAK: I can tell you that many of my friends and family reported not being able to finish the film in one sitting.

QURESHI: Amir Husak is a Bosnian professor of media studies at The New School in New York.

HUSAK: It is a collective trauma that we speaking about, and it brings back many painful memories.

QURESHI: The film's title, "Quo Vadis, Aida?," taken from the apocryphal Christian tradition, asks the question at the heart of the film's story. Where is Aida going? And where does a society go after a war ends?

For NPR News, I'm Bilal Qureshi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTONI LAZARKIEWICZ'S "THEME FROM QUO VADIS, AIDA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.