Jasmila Žbanic’s Quo vadis, Aida? presents one of the most horrifying war crimes in history, the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre—where more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys are executed by Serbian troops, almost candidly. There’s an urgency in the motion picture that, as a Bosnian, Žbanic is compelled to bring out the story as it is—to remind the world of every victim as an individual, not just numbers. It’s dedicated to all Bosnian women, who lost their husband and sons during the event; who, at this point of the history, have to continue to live in a world with the perpetrators, especially the leader, Ratko Mladic, who still denies the genocide up to today.
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In offering a sensible perspective of the events, Žbanic’s story follows a local Srebrenica woman, Aida (portrayed with the heart and soul of Jasna Đuričić), who works as an interpreter in the UN peacekeeping base run by Dutch troops. Her role in the UN vicinity gives her an invincibility status that separates her from most Srebrenica locals; but, that doesn’t make her less of a Srebrenica woman. Her husband and sons are among the mobilized civilians who are forced to inhabit their town and take shelter in a cramped, over-crowded UN base.
With the base that can only shelter less than 2,000 people, everyone becomes immediately overwhelmed. Thousands are stranded outside the fenced base with shortage of supplies. Aida jumps tirelessly from helping military members, doctors, and other volunteers; and, from there, we learn the contexts prior to the impending massacre. Serbian troops have isolated the town and blocks supply routes, practically starving the Srebrenica townsfolk. In no time, the Serbians along with General Radic who has fascination of filming propaganda arrive in the base and helplessness takes over control.
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Quo vadis, Aida? is a movie that condemns the harrowing impact of war, but never once, it overindulges in the horror of war. Instead, it focuses on the human characters, be it Aida and her family or the reluctant and powerless Dutch troops or any Bosnian people trying to survive. Žbanic, however, never lets the tension drop even when she allows people to revel in small moments of togetherness amidst the unforeseen chaos. Told from female perspectives, the message is never to glorify the gory, brutal imagery of war that is, more often than not, over-exploiting it to quench the thirst of aggression. In fact, the message is to recenter the focus to the surviving victims—Bosnian women who relives the psychological trauma over and over for years without ever knowing what had actually happened to their husbands or sons.
Aida works mostly as an observer of the story with occasional burst of optimism that things will get better. Yet, over time, she’ll learn that she is just as helpless as the UN peacekeeping army who negotiates against enemies that knows no code. Quo vadis, Aida? highlights the humanity that has to cope with the failure of peacekeeping procedures and relive the fateful moments leading to the Srebrenica Massacre as well as the aftermath. It reminds us that such a heartbreaking story has a message to decipher that should not get lost from the collective memory.