In Jasmila Žbanić’s shattering movie about the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, Quo Vadis, Aida?, a woman early on climbs onto a small structure and stares out over a barbed-wire fence onto a sea of bodies emblazoned with petrified faces. Such woman is Aida (Jasna Đuričić), and she’s searching for her family, but as the camera pans across the crowd, echoing her desperate gaze, the enormity of the tragedy at hand comes into focus. It’s not the last time Aida will experience being at such a high vantage, sometimes with a megaphone in hand as she translates instructions and information for her fellow refugees. She knows her words are worthless, a mix of vague reassurances and outright lies; she also knows that, under the circumstances, hearing the truth might be just as worthless.
Crowd shots in war movies run the risk of numbing the viewer, of overwhelming us with a large cluster of detail that then renders mass suffering into abstraction. But the details somehow never blur in Quo Vadis, Aida?, which manages to hold background and foreground in an unsettling balance for one-hundred-two taut, panicking minutes. Žbanić, who wrote and directed the film, doesn’t take a panoramic approach. She keeps her focus on Aida, a Srebrenica schoolteacher turned United Nations interpreter working on behalf of a town she suspects is doomed and trying to spare her family the same fate. But the bigger picture never recedes into the smaller one. As Aida races the clock, it becomes clear that her family’s survival, if it comes to pass, will be a rare and privileged exception.
The film opens in July 1995 in the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrencia, declared a demilitarized safe zone by Dutch U.N. peacekeepers. Žbanić doesn’t waste time on overlong setup; the war has been raging for three years, and Aida is our lone guide to the horrors that have befallen and will befall her hometown. It’s through her eyes — and her words, as she facilitates anxious talks between the town’s mayor and its assigned protectors — that we learn that the badly outnumbered U.N. forces will be hard-pressed to keep the Serbian army from overrunning Srebrenica. Soon thousands of civilians have retreated to the nearby U.N. base, where some manage to take refuge inside while others are left standing behind that barbed-wire fence, waiting and begging to be let in before the Serbs arrive. Aida, for her part, darts around inside and out and back again, translating on behalf of wounded patients one minute and pleading with U.N. officials the next, desperate to ensure the safety of her husband, Nihad (Izudin Bajrović), and their sons, Hamdija (Boris Ler) and Sejo (Dino Bajrović). From time to time the tension breaks, but the looming threat doesn’t.
Aida’s moral principle, her need to do as much as she can in an impossible situation, finds her powerful expression in her relentless forward momentum and the corresponding speed and agility of Žbanić’s filmmaking. Đuričić, in a performance of remarkable physical and emotional endurance, empathizes Aida’s sharp reflexes. She’s initially reassured that the Serbian troops wouldn’t dare penetrate U.N. barriers, but we see the heightened urgency in her step and the mounting terror in her eyes as these and other illusions begin to crumble. As she hustles through boundaries, the film’s titular usage of the Latin phrase “quo vadis?” (“Where are you going?”) — a reference to the apostle Peter’s march away from crucifixion in Rome — here feels like a moral inquiry, both sympathetic and disapproving, directed at Aida’s conscience. Her concern for her family above all else is an entirely human reaction, but even as it acknowledges this, the movie keeps showing us sidelong glimpses of those for whom Aida can do nothing. We see a woman she knows begging for help as runs past; hungry hands grasping at loaves of bread and boxes of candy being passed out by Serbian troops.
Those troops are under the command of the notorious general Ratko Mladić (Boris Isakovi´c), first shown striding through the abandoned streets of Srebrenica before later calling for a sham negotiation with town representatives. The movie is, among other things, an incriminatory assessment of the U.N.’s failure to intervene and keep the Serbian army at bay — a failure born not just of insufficient firepower, but also of geopolitical pressures hovering beyond the scope of the frame. The extent of their surrender becomes clear once Mladić’s troops, working at the direction of Joka (Emir Hadžihafizbegović), begin separating civilians by gender and putting them onto buses. You’ve seen images like these in other movies drawn from real-life atrocities, but Quo, Vadis, Aida? re-creates history in the present tense, with an immediacy that Žbanić captures in a formal restraint: This is a movie about the murders of more than eight-thousand Bosnian Muslims, mostly boys and men, in which graphic violence is never shown and yet the worst is never remotely in doubt. The withholding of that violence doesn’t feel like vagueness; it feels like an attempts to movie beyond the bludgeoning conventions of cinematic realism, to acknowledge the unspeakable without relying on a spectacle of blood.
Like so many war crimes throughout history, the Srebrenica massacre has been denied, downplayed and even defiantly rationalized in some quarters, even as the arrests and convictions of its engineers (including general Mladić) and the discoveries of mass graves have told a different story. Žbanić’s movie traces that story to its horrific conclusion and beyond, jumping years ahead to a wintry coda that feels variously damning, haunting and faintly consoling. Aida is no longer running; she’s not at peace, but she is at least at rest. The ghosts of the past still flicker into view in the faces of an old acquaintance and a new generation of children, most of them unaware of the secrets buried in the ground they call home. But Aida knows and cannot forget them, any more than she herself can be forgotten. With a rigorous honesty and an immediacy throughout its chaos and calculation, Quo Vadis, Aida? is a precise, unsparing balance of nerve-rattling tension and devastating humanism.
Quo Vadis, Aida? is available in Virtual Cinemas