Quo Vadis, Aida?
Bosnia, 11 July 1995. Aida is a translator for the United Nations in the small town of Srebrenica. When the Serbian army takes over the town, her family is among the thousands of civilians seeking shelter in the UN camp. As an insider to the negotiations, Aida has access to crucial information that she needs to interpret. What fate awaits her family and people – rescue or death? What move should she make?
Although completely unrelated, one assumes, to Henryk Sienkiewicz’s historical novel about the persecution of the early Christians in Rome, Jasmila Žbanić’s Quo Vadis, Aida? is a proper heart attack of a film. And many must agree, given that the film had one of the most successful runs in 2020, which kicked off with its world premiere in competition at the Venice Film Festival and continued with triumphs at many important film festivals such as Arras, Les Arcs and Luxembourg. It finished the year by winning an Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film and being nominated for BAFTA awards for Best Foreign Film and Best Director (the first time in the awards’ history for a Bosnian filmmaker) and for the Oscar for Best International Film, no less.
Fast-paced and unforgiving, it follows Aida (the fantastic Jasna Đuričić), a teacher-turned-translator for the UN in Srebrenica trying to find her way after it suddenly turns into hell once the Serbian army takes over. Also in focus are her husband (Izudin Bajrović) and two sons (Boris Ler and Dino Bajrović), still hidden somewhere among those desperately begging for shelter in the camp.
The film has something of a Dunkirk-like, out-of-breath approach to war as Aida is literally running for her family’s life. As the person who constantly accompanies those who are supposed to be in charge, she knows a lot – too much to just accept their promises, and too much not to have any qualms about repeating these empty words to all the tired, confused faces. She is told, in two languages of course, that ‘the Dutch closed the gate,’ even though Srebrenica was declared a UN safe zone.
As time is running out and the whole place seems to keep shrinking, Žbanić’s film (edited by Cold War’s wizard Jarosław Kamiński) plays out like a proper thriller. Frankly, the only thing missing is a 24-style countdown clock. But – this probably doesn’t need a spoiler alert, given Srebrenica’s gory infamy – don’t expect any saviours or last-minute twists of fate in this tale, as even a man who is convinced that help will come eventually shuts himself in a room, asking to be left alone.
This heaviness matches the subject matter, but the film is also immersive and incredibly engaging. Time slows down just for one flashback, to a happier time at the East Bosnia Best Hairstyle competition, no less. Yet soon enough, the script returns to evading people’s questions and to the refrain of ‘what is he saying?!’ repeated again and again, not that anyone really cares. It’s small wonder that while there is not a moment to waste, certainly not for grandiose monologues, Žbanić (who, after all, won a Golden Bear for Grbavica) still shows us every aspect of war: the lack of communication, the utter helplessness of just about everyone involved despite their declarations, and the sudden realisation that there is no way out hitting you like a cold sweat. The fact that she isn’t talking about some remote past, but about an event from 1995 – one she has already described as ‘a huge trauma for all Bosnians’ – makes it even more terrifying, especially when filtered through all these voices calling for ‘patriotism’ these days. It’s very telling that in Quo Vadis, Aida?, the people coming with the guns are the ones we know – Aida’s old students from school, someone’s friend from university. It’s absurd and it’s scary, and it can happen again.
Quo vadis, Aida? was produced by Deblokada Produkcija, co-produced by Coop99, Digital Cube, Extreme Emotions, Indie Prod, N279 Entertainment, Razor Film Produktion, Tordenfilm AS, Österreichischer Rundfunk (ORF), TV ARTE/ ZDF, Radio Television of BiH and TRT. International sales are handled by Indie Sales.
Marta Bałaga, Cineuropa