When a violent ethnic conflict broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, the writer-director Jasmila Zbanic was a teenager in Sarajevo, where she would spend the next three years living under siege.
The instability and violence of that era would indelibly shape Zbanic's later work as a filmmaker: In movies like Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams and For Those Who Can Tell No Tales, she explored the aftermath of the war and the deep scars it left in her country's psyche.
Zbanic's new film, Quo Vadis, Aida?, is her most direct reckoning yet with the legacy of the Bosnian war. It dramatizes the events of July 1995 in the town of Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslims, most of them men and boys, were murdered by the Bosnian Serb Army.
The story is extraordinarily tense, but Zbanic tells it with great compassion and restraint: No graphic bloodshed is shown on-screen. Zbanic knows that war films have given us no shortage of devastating images, and here she seeks to convey the magnitude of an historic tragedy — the worst European massacre since World War II — without turning violence into spectacle.
Zbanic tells the story from one woman's perspective. The protagonist is a schoolteacher from Srebrenica named Aida, played in a brilliant performance by Jasna Duricic. She now works as a translator for Dutch peacekeeping troops assigned by the United Nations to protect the town. Aida's job grants her early access to key information, and it's through her eyes and ears that we learn that the U.N. forces are badly outnumbered and won't be able to keep advancing Serbian troops from taking over Srebrenica.
And so thousands of civilians flee the town and head for a nearby U.N. base, where some manage to take refuge inside and others are forced to wait outside in the hot July sun. Aida's badge allows her to move freely about the compound, and for much of the movie, briskly shot by the cinematographer Christine A. Maier, the camera races to keep up with her as she darts from one task to the next. In one scene, Aida's translating for wounded refugees; in another, she's pleading with blue-helmeted U.N. soldiers to let her husband and son inside the base safely.
Before long the Serbian troops show up at the U.N. base, claiming to be looking for Muslim soldiers in hiding. Soon they begin separating everyone by gender and forcing them onto buses, claiming they'll be transported to safety.
We now know the real-life outcome, a tragic result that might have been very different had the peacekeepers held their ground, and Quo Vadis, Aida? is a damning portrait of not only the Serbian army but also the Dutch U.N. soldiers for failing to stand against them — and for the United Nations itself, which tried to remain "neutral" in a politically fraught humanitarian situation.
The Latin phrase quo vadis? — which means "Where are you going?" — is a reference to an apocryphal New Testament story about how the apostle Peter fled Rome but ultimately mustered the courage to return and face his death by crucifixion. Quo Vadis, Aida? is thus a fitting title for the story of a woman who's constantly on the move under impossible circumstances.
Đuricic plays Aida with a mix of keen intelligence and fierce maternal instinct. Because of her position, Aida knows before nearly anyone else that the situation is dire. Zbanic doesn't judge Aida for doing what anyone might do, using her access and her connections to try and save her family from a horrifying fate.
But what makes the movie remarkable is that even as it remains tightly focused on Aida, it never loses sight of the other stories unfolding around her. Zbanic can't do all of them justice, of course, but there's piercing humanity in the details she shows us, whether it's a couple impulsively making out while people around them are sleeping, or a hungry crowd grabbing at loaves of bread and boxes of chocolate that are being handed out. These may be simple, universal acts of survival, but no less than anything else we see in this heartrending film, they deserve to be remembered.