Quo vadis, Aida? Film Review
Who are the real villains, the ones who commit the war crimes, or the ones who stand-by and let them happen?
Director: Jasmila Zbanic
Stars: Jasna Djuricic, Johan Heldenbergh, Raymond Thiry, Boris Isakovic
To say the UN ‘stood-by’ would imply they did nothing, that’s not true. I believe the word that needs to be used here is facilitate. Why did a Dutch-run UN base facilitate the killing of 8372 men in Bosnia in 1995? That’s not a simple question to answer, as you might imagine, but Quo vadis, Aida? tries to offer up some reasons that may have led to this catastrophic failure in leadership.
Quo vadis, Aida? starts off with lies and false promises for the people of Srebrenica. This is the driving sentiment of the film, how these people were doomed from the very beginning. They are told that they live in a safe zone that is under the protection of the UN, and that the Serbian troops have been given an ultimatum, remove their heavy weapons from the area or there will be retaliation in the form of airstrikes.
While it is Colonel Karremans of the local UN base that promises the people of Srebrenica their safety, we quickly find out it’s not his fault that he can’t deliver on this promise. When Karremans calls for back-up, he finds there’s no help coming. This is due to the fact that there is no chain of command, because all of the generals are ‘on vacation’. This is so hilariously macabre, it has to be one of parts of the film that is ‘based on true events’. As the old saying goes, you couldn’t write it.
Quo vadis, Aida? is not a comedy, far from it. It’s a harrowing look at how certain people are seen as expendable and are as easily neglected as a barbed-wire fence, a beret, or some other military paraphernalia. As I eluded to at the top, the UN did more harm by being there, than if they hadn’t bothered at all. As mentioned in the film several times, some of the residents of Srebrenica fled to the woods. Sadly, of the two options that may have been the sensible choice, but on paper, how could it be?
There are scenes in this film that will stick with you forever. That’s not to say that they are violent in nature, while there is violence in Quo vadis, Aida?, it’s pretty much all implied or not shown, the scenes I’m referring to are disturbing on a much deeper level. Unfortunately I can only outline them here for fear of spoiling the film, but you will know which scenes they are when you watch the film. They involve one character, the eponymous, Aida, sterile, white-walled rooms, and a silence that is shattered by disembodied sounds. In the first, a woman crying and in the second, just one word, mum.
Quo vadis, when translated from Latin to English means, where are you going. So the title of the film is asking, where are you going, Aida? This is the fundamental question of the film, both literally and figuratively. Aida, a translator that works for the UN, is a local resident of Srebrenica with a family, a husband and two sons. As she is helping the UN, she has the credentials to freely move around the base, take shelter there when the Serbians attack the town, but most importantly, has a ‘ticket’ out of the area if the base were to be evacuated. Her family do not.
You feel the dread, desperation, and anguish that Aida feels in real-time as she races to try and save her family. As a translator, she is in a special position to understand (and witness) that any plans the UN may have had are starting to fall apart and quickly. There are a lot of close-ups of the actor’s faces in the film, of course these are used to convey the emotions the characters are feeling. They are used with potent effect whenever we get a close-up of Aida, played with a natural likeability by Jasna Djuricic. You feel safe when she is on-screen, there’s a real mother’s kindness to her. Your heart sinks when you see the hope drain from her face during pivotal moments. It’s akin to seeing an airhostess start to panic during a flight.
A surprising thing to note about Quo Vadis, Aida? is how bright and colourful it is. Usually when this sort of subject matter is tackled in a film, the colour-palette is very drab to help sell the depressing nature of the topic. The tone of Quo Vadis, Aida? is contradictory in some instances. Near the start, as the town is being evacuated, the residents are walking through golden fields as the summer sun beams down on them from a clear blue sky, accompanied by a chorus of grasshoppers. Most of the people are wearing colourful clothes, which juxtaposes the sombre expressions on their faces as they walk towards the ‘safety’ of the UN base leaving their shell-marked town behind. All of this adds to a deeper sense of terror more than any mono-chromatic, dark cinematography ever could. It feels authentic, you really can put yourself in the shoes of these people.
Jasmila Zbanic has done a fantastic job as both the director and writer of Quo Vadis, Aida? She manages to make every resident of Srebrenica feel like an individual. This is especially well done during the party scene mid-way through the film. Yes, it’s a little on the nose that the townsfolk stare down the camera at you one by one as they dance around in a circle in slow motion, but it works to make you realise that these people were just living a normal life when this happened. You are them and they are you.
Quo vadis, Aida? is a film that needs to be experienced by everyone. It’s an important film that is sitting somewhere near the bottom of Netflix’s current library. I only stumbled upon it because I was looking up the highest rated films of 2020 for another project. Some how I missed it originally, even though it was nominated for Best International film at the Oscars. But then again who takes notice of Oscar nominations these days?
Please, before watching the next hyped-up Netflix release that will more than likely be vapid and formulaic, dig up Quo vadis, Aida? and give it the attention it deserves.