Quo Vadis, Aida? (2021)
Written & Directed by Jasmila Žbanić
In July 1995, Bosnian forces took the city of Srebrenica. This was part of the Bosnian War, a three-year civil war that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Ethnic and nationalist groups fell into conflict; proto-fascist forces targeted Muslim populations. The Bosnian War is a complicated subject to talk about, just purely from how complex the internals of these regions are. It was never a clear war with one side versus another, but lots of smaller players as well. Quo Vadis, Aida? tells a very personal story about one of many brutal events that saw the mass culling of people while the United Nations/NATO seemed powerless to do anything. Through this story, we’re forced to contemplate what it would be like to then live beside the very people responsible for such swaths of deaths.
Aida (Jasna Đuričić) is a former schoolteacher working as a UN translator to protect her community in Srebrenica. The Bosnian Serb Army arrives in her city, and the citizens flee to a nearby UN camp, but thousands are refused entry when the facility quickly fills up. Aida manages to get one of her sons, Hamijda, in, but her husband Nihad and eldest son Sejo are still out among the masses. And this pretty much the film, Aida spends most of the runtime wandering through the halls of this camp trying to speak with the Dutch soldiers in command and get her family safely out of the ever-increasing danger of this place. We glimpse the impotence of these commanders, not receiving support from their superiors and being forced to watch as the people they promised to protect are pulled into a trap set by the Bosnians.
If you are easily prone to anxiety, this is not a movie you should watch. Jasmila Žbanić does a profoundly good job conveying the feel of panic coming in waves. Aida has moments of respite, they are short but meaningful, yet she always seems to be back to begging and clawing away as the ground slides out from underneath her. What makes it so harrowing is that Aida, the UN commanders, every citizen, and you, the viewer, know what will happen to these people. When the deal is brokered that the Serbian army will provide buses to relocate the refugees, everything sinks into place. It gets even worse when all men are separated from the women and children. The Serbs have no interest in reunification.
The knife is driven deeper at how so many refugees are talking aloud to convince themselves it’s going to be okay. They talk about how it sucks to be displaced, but the Serbs promised to take them somewhere to start over. There’s chatter about celebrations when they get there, just being lazy and eating all day. A baby is born at night, and Aida talks with her UN colleagues about family and children. No matter where you come from, there is such a deep human desire to cling to the idyllic and the warmth of the hearth. But Aida lives in a time and place where that dream can’t hold for very long, and within minutes she’s overtaken by the desperation of survival.
The film’s genius moment is really in the third act when we get a short glimpse of Aida in the present day. She’s a schoolteacher again, someone else lives in her family’s apartment now (claimed by the Serbs when they marched into town), and she even oversees a pageant where the children of war criminals perform. There are regular viewings of remains found in unmarked burial sights, and we get the sense these are weekly stops for her. She walks past the partial skeletons and scraps of clothes laid out with a complete disconnect in her face. And then she sees Nihad, then one of her sons, then the other, and she’s broken, taken back to that day when she saw them being forced onto buses and driven away forever.
Quo Vadis, Aida? speaks not just to the specifics of the Bosnian War but to those people living in dire circumstances. Across the world, due to COVID-19, the seams of society are coming apart. The institutions we were promised our whole lives would protect us are shown to be cowardly in the eleventh hour. Look at how ICE in the United States operates in complete defiance of edicts issued by the White House. It’s clear that the belief society is a fine-tuned machine that will keep churning away without change is a sad joke. The rise of right-wing militancy across the globe adds to the sense of anxiety we feel. You would imagine that the force of the United Nations and NATO would not be overwhelmed by a local insurgency, but they are not as invincible as we’d like to imagine. The picture offers no answers; it demands we simply bear witness. And then, in its final moments as we glimpse familiar faces of those who lived, aged by the decades, are we asked how we continue to live like normal in the face of such horrors?