In QUO VADIS, AIDA?, a 2020 Bosnian film written, produced, and directed by Jasmila Žbanic, we see the horrific Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian War through the eyes of a woman struggling to protect her family from what she believes will be certain death. This powerful, realistic, and heartbreaking film is still haunting me.
During the Bosnian War in the Nineties, Serbian military and paramilitary forces (led by Ratko Mladic, who was later convicted for war crimes) lay siege to the city of Srebrenica, declared a United Nations safe zone. We see Aida, a schoolteacher, working as a translator between the city leaders and the Dutch officers serving with the UN, who promise to use force to protect the citizens. In the next scene, we see the population fleeing to crowd the local UN base as the Serbs enter the city. But the Serbs aren’t done. The film shows us what happens over the next 24 hours.
Translating from Latin as “Where are you going, Aida?”, QUO VADIS, AIDA? presents a portrait of a woman with some agency (she works as a translator for the UN and therefore has their protection) who struggles to help her city or family. Over the next 24 hours, we see the UN come up as absolutely useless as the Dutch soldiers understand they are not allowed to back up their threats, resulting in their utter humiliation. (It’s easy to say the UN is “useless” in conflicts like the Bosnian War and the war against Ukraine, but it’s an instrument, not a government, and only as useless as its member countries want it do be.) We see the Serbs bully and murder the Bosnians and ultimately convince them to go willingly to their doom. And we see Aida go from trying to protect her city to desperately trying to protect her family as things quickly devolve to every person for themselves.
The film making style is almost perfect. No heart wrenching music, the matter of fact presentation without an ounce of bias. The story is presented almost in a documentary manner, respecting the viewer to supply the requisite emotions. Aida is not a hero but instead a wife and mother desperately trying to keep her men alive. The story becomes steadily more painful to experience, as you can see what’s coming but like Aida know there’s no way to prevent it, right to the end, when the survivors on both sides must not only live together again but also with what happened to them and what they’ve done.
I find stories about the Bosnian War particularly relevant because for anytime I hear somebody in America threatening civil war, this is exactly what they’re promising. Even now, its lessons aren’t even learned in Bosnia–the film could not be shot in Srebrenica itself because the current mayor is a genocide-denier.