Quo Vadis, Aida? – movie review

A few films have looked at the Bosnian conflict of the 90s (Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome To Sarajevo, for one), but few have been as powerful, compelling or intelligent as this searing drama from Serbian filmmaker Jasmila Zbanic. Quo Vadis, Aida? was apparently one of former President Barack Obama’s favourite films of the year.

The film is set in July 1995 when the Serbian forces pressed forward and took the town of Szrebenica, forcing the local population to flee. Thousands of refugees descended on the nearby UN compound seeking safety and refuge, wanting assurances they would be protected. But the base was hopelessly overcrowded and thousands of refugees were still stranded outside the compound’s gates.

Aida (Jasna Djuricic) is a school teacher who worked as a translator for the UN. She was able to ensure that her husband and two teenage sons made it inside the compound. Pleas for help from the hapless Dutch NATO commander Colonel Thom Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh) were largely ignored – because the people he needed to talk with were apparently on holiday. And the promised air support was never delivered.

But as the military, under the command of the ruthless General Mladic (Boris Isakovic, Djuricic’s real-life husband) descended on the base hunting down Muslims, the situation grew more perilous and combustible. Aida tried to ensure that her family was placed on the UN’s list of people to be evacuated from the base, knowing that if they were caught they would most likely be executed. Mladic offers to help transport the refugees out of the area to safety, but insists that the women and children should travel separately from the men. And as history shows, the Serbian forces eventually killed some 8,000 local men and boys in a horrific act of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Djuricic delivers a compelling performance that captures Aida’s desperation, her frustrations, her anxiety, and her fears as she tries to negotiate and find help for her family. While working as a translator for the UN Aida was considered important enough for special treatment, but sadly her family was not.

Cinematographer Christine A Maier uses handheld cameras to effectively follow Aida in closeup for much of the film and this accentuates the sense of helplessness.

Quo Vadis, Aida?, the most expensive film to come out of Bosnia, is based on the non-fiction book Under The UN Flag by Hasan Nuhanovic. Nuhanovic also worked as a translator for the Dutch, and his book is unflinching in its depiction of the war. The film pointedly illustrates how powerless and impotent the UN forces were, and in this aspect the film resembles Terry George’s 2005 drama Hotel Rwanda, set against the backdrop of the genocide in Rwanda.

Zbanic powerfully depicts the horrors of war, of prejudice and persecution and the tension ratchets up inexorably. The film almost has a documentary like sense of realism as the harrowing events unfold. Zbanic deliberately avoids graphic depictions of violence, which makes the drama more effective and visceral. She brings a claustrophobic tension to the scenes inside the overcrowded and cramped UN base and we can almost smell the sweat and taste the fear.

This is not the first time Zbanic has visited this dark period of her homeland’s history, but Quo Vadis, Aida resonates powerfully with a sense of anger and urgency.

Greg King

Other reviews you might enjoy: