The submission by Bosnia-Herzogovina for this year’s international feature Oscar is a slow-burn drama with a palpable sense of growing dread, set during the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. More than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered by units under the command of General Ratko Mladić, now facing a life sentence having been convicted of crimes against humanity. Yet if that makes Quo Vadis, Aida? sound like an unbearably tough prospect, be reassured that in the hands of writer-director Jasmila Žbanić, who won a Berlin Golden Bear for her 2006 debut feature, Grbavica, this horrifying tale is lent a profoundly human heart, ensuring that we keep on watching, a notable achievement for a movie that is centrally concerned with the spectre of looking away.
Jasna Đuričić, feted for her role in 2010’s White, White World, is utterly convincing as Aida, a translator working at a UN base near Srebrenica, who sees first hand the failure of peacemakers to prevent an unfolding catastrophe. “Will anyone in the world witness this tragedy, this unprecedented crime?” pleads a voice on a radio. Yet it’s clear that, despite being an alleged “safe zone”, nobody is ready or willing to protect this area. Instead, thousands are forced to flee to the UN encampment, where the Dutch authorities promptly close the gates on thousands more.
Having struggled to get her husband and sons in under the wire – an early indication of future conflicts of interest – Aida is forced to maintain an outward appearance of calm as Mladić (played with an air of reptilian contempt by Boris Isaković) engages in a grotesque pantomime of “negotiations”, commanding a camera crew to record his actions as he promises “the safety of all innocent people”. Meanwhile, his forces enter the camp, handing out bread and chocolate in a chilling scene to which Žbanić lends quietly apocalyptic undertones.
From the biblical allusions of the title to a scene in which Aida climbs up to survey the lost tide of humanity before her, our anguished heroine is cast in a role that evokes both the wilderness of exile and the burden of tortured responsibility. Time and again, cinematographer Christine A Maier’s cameras capture her rushing through the labyrinth of the camp, frantically attempting to save her own family (the tension is amplified by Jarosław Kamiński’s taut editing) while simultaneously dealing with the wider disaster that she cannot prevent. Meanwhile, flashbacks to a party in happier times sit alongside present encounters with former neighbours turned tormentors, lending pointed emotional weight to unfathomable horrors.
There’s a hint of Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda in the understated evocation of an approaching atrocity, the sense of something terrible playing out in full view of a world that does nothing. Both films manage to balance the enormity of dreadful historical events with the emotional specificity of individual stories, allowing the audience to engage even as they are appalled and outraged. Inspired by the book Under the UN Flag: The International Community and the Srebrenica Genocide by Hasan Nuhanović, Žbanić crucially describes her film as portraying the “courage, love and resilience” of “a woman caught in a male game of war”, and dedicates it to “the women of Srebrenica and their 8,372 killed sons, fathers, husbands, brothers, cousins, neighbours…”
“Now you will see the real film,” says a soldier just before one discreetly devastating sequence from which the camera slowly withdraws. Yet like the unblinking closeup that concludes the deeply moving (and ultimately redemptive?) epilogue to Quo Vadis, Aida?, Žbanić’s powerful and personal film keeps its eyes wide open.