Aida (Jasna Djuricic) is a translator for the UN protection forces stationed in 1995 near Srebrenica, a small town in Bosnia-Herzegovina not far from its jagged border with Serbia. As a translator, she communicates the wishes of Muslim Bosnian refugees, who are camped inside—and outside—the UN base, to the Dutch UN forces; and she in turn communicates the directives of those forces to her compatriots.
Aida is the go-between in an untenable situation, even an enabler of what will become one of the late 20th century’s most notorious massacres of innocent people. “Just translate,” a UN official tells her when she hesitates to communicate to the people inside the refugee camp that all is well and they will be taken to a safe place—even as she suspects, or even knows, that cannot possibly be true. The film’s title, referencing Jesus’s questioning of Peter’s decision to leave Rome, where the city’s Christians were being persecuted, reflects Aida’s dilemma.
The strength of Jasmila Zbanic’s (she’s both the writer and the director) fictionalized historical drama is its unrelenting tension, even when the end is known. Zbanic accomplishes this feat without showing one murder; all physical atrocities are off-stage. Based on the revelatory book by UN translator Hasan Nuhanovic (“the Elie Wiesel of Bosnia”), whose father, mother and brother were in the camp with him and all of whom were murdered, the script steers clear of political and religious explanations for the tragedy that is about to unfold. The word “Muslim” is used only a few times; the women in the camp have mostly uncovered hair; there are no obvious observations of religion, and no treatment of its role in the conflict. We never learn why the Serbs and Bosnians have gone to war.
This approach works—and it doesn’t. It allows Zbanic to foreground the raw fact of genocide, unencumbered by “reasons” that can seem uncomfortably close to explaining (even, for some, rationalizing) horrific behavior. In addition, it opens space for and makes plausible the film’s two stories: the story of an unprepared, bureaucratic, ineffectual, obtuse and naive international community, represented by an on-the-ground Dutch UN contingent; and the story of Aida’s intense personal quest to save her family—she and her two sons and husband are on the UN-occupied military base—from a vicious reprisal she (and no one else in authority) is sure is coming. If we knew more, the Dutch response would seem absurd (as it does to some extent, anyway), and Aida’s intense fear would be everywhere in the camp, her story that of everyone.
One problem in vesting the knowledge of what is likely to happen in one or two people (Aida and her older son) is that the Dutch appear unaware and inept. “I’m just a piano player,” says Dutch Colonel Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh). As Aida translates his words, the Bosnian next to her says, “What does that mean?” It’s an obtuse metaphor, as obtuse as this UN official who clearly feels he can do nothing but follow the directions of others; he has no personal morality at play.
More important, the intellectual/ideological weightlessness of the production allows Aida’s (melo)dramatic story—for better or worse—to take over. Djurici’s Aida is compelling, the camera often focused on her expressive, perpetually anxious face as she registers the trauma and horror of what is likely happening outside of her—and our—vision. That more or less works. What doesn’t is Aida’s constant running around in the complex and indecipherable setting of the base, as if her movement alone would prevent the worst from happening (or, at the very least, inform the viewer that she cares enough to bring herself to the point of exhaustion).
The studied absence of politics and religion is perhaps the reason there is no nuance in the various sides. The Serbs, led by General Ratko Mladić (Boris Isakovic), are presented as big, muscular, confident, lecherous men. The Bosnians are cowering, weak, undirected family “folk”; their representatives selected to negotiate with the Serbs are inexperienced, timid townspeople—all their leaders apparently having fled to the woods.
The studied absence of politics and religion is perhaps the reason there is no nuance in the various sides.
The Dutch UN forces, in contrast to the Serbs, are shown as equivocating, smallish men and women, dressed for who knows what in shorts and sleeveless tees—hardly a match for the camouflage-clad Mladić forces, not physically nor temperamentally nor intellectually.
Despite these criticisms, “Quo Vadis, Aida?” resonates even (or even more so) today. As one sees the masses of Bosnians stranded outside and pressing against the fences of the UN base, desperate to join the several thousand already inside (and thinking they’ll be safe there), images come to mind of the thousands outside the Afghan airport, massed at the US-Mexico border, in Syrian camps. And, as one sees the Dutch UN officials unable to stand up to a strongman killer, one thinks of similar strongmen today: the Taliban or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
Nuhanovic’s campaign to make the world take responsibility of some sort, which started with his book on which this screenplay is based, “Under the UN Flag” (2007), has had some success. The end of the true story is that Mladić has been convicted of war crimes, and the Dutch state found liable in Dutch courts of failing to prevent the massacre of at least 300 men (of the more than 8,000 males killed).
“Quo Vadis, Aida?” was a nominee for Best International Feature Film in the 2021 Oscars, among its multiple wins and nominations. It also has a rare almost-perfect Metacritic’s score. Yet there are better war films, films that are more effective in directing our attention to the horrors of war and genocide, whether personal (“Son of Saul,” which won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2016) or grand in scope (“Dunkirk” 2017). Zbanic’s film is nonetheless a worthy addition to the canon, especially with its focus on the weakness of an international community response and the tragic personal experience of Aida/Nuhanovic.
Lead image: Jasna Djuricic, left, as Aida, translating to the masses inside the UN refugee camp.
Date: 2020, US release March 2021
Stars: 3 (out of 4)
Director: Jasmila Zbanic
Starring: Jasna Djuricic, Boris Isakovic, Johan Heldenbergh
Countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria, Romania, Netherlands, Germany, Poland, France, Turkey, Norway
Languages: Serbo-Croatian, Bosnian, English, Dutch, Serbian; subtitled in English
Other Awards: 19 wins and 16 other nominations
Runtime: 101 minutes
Availability: Streaming on Hulu; for rent or purchase on multiple sites, including Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play; see JustWatch here for all sources.