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In Quo Vadis, Aida?, we all share the protagonist’s pain

Review of Jasmila Žbanić’s film “Quo Vadis, Aida?”, one of the nominees in the upcoming Oscars in the Best International Feature Film category.

April 23, 2021 - Kristijan Fidanovski - Books and Reviews

Still from Quo Vadis, Aida. Source: Calvert Journal Film Festival

Quo Vadis, Aida? opens to the buzzing of insects – the classic calm before the storm. For a movie whose plot is bound to be predictable on some level, this seems like an odd creative choice. This is a movie about genocide. We all know what happened during that fateful summer of 1995 in Bosnia. As painful as it is to revisit this pitiful display of human depravity, we might as well get straight to it if we are watching a film about it. No need for false suspense if we are heading towards the abyss anyway.

Except, in this film, there is no calm before the storm. Five seconds into the buzzing, which is accompanied by a visual of blossoming nature, we see a tank rear its ugly head, barge into this beautiful shot and crush the fragile green leaves. The storm has already arrived.

What is the right adjective to describe a genocide? Barbaric? Heinous? Cowardly? For Quo Vadis, Aida?, the best choice is probably ‘absurd’. One thing I kept thinking about throughout this film is how much it must confuse foreign viewers. If the aggressors and the victims spoke the exact same language, how did the Bosnian Serb forces even know who to kill? Sure, some (usually older) Muslim women in Bosnia wear hijabs. Similarly, when confronting Aida, the woman her husband made a widow, the wife of the Serb commander wears a cross on her neck. But the director (Jasmila Žbanić) knows that the cross has to be huge and the camera has to keep zooming in on it; other than this, the two women look and sound exactly the same. In real life, the actress playing Aida (Jasna Djuričić), a Bosnian Muslim woman working as a translator for the UN peacekeepers, is Serbian. The actor playing the Bosnian Serb commander (Emir Hadžihafizbegović) is Muslim. How on earth could these people go to war with one another?

Quo vadis, Aida? (Where are you going, Aida?) Because where you go and what you do is who you will become for the rest of your life. How do you get your UN sort-of-colleagues to save your family? If you cannot save them, where do you hide them? Why should they survive when so many others do not? Are you one of us, or one of them? But who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’ in this film? There are those with a UN badge and those without. There are those who kill and those who are killed. Of course, there are also those who make it and those who do not. I am neither, Aida would say. As she keeps telling the desperate crowds around her throughout the movie, “I’m just translating”. It is also what she tells herself throughout the film. It is what she will have to keep telling herself to remain sane in a life no longer worth living. She made it, but also did not. Quo vadis, Aida? The answer is nowhere.

This is a story with many villains. These villains have many excuses, each less convincing than the next. The UN peacekeepers, who allowed the Serbs to breach their safe zone, were only following their protocol. The Serbs only killed those Muslim men who they thought had killed Serbs. (In their hate-infected minds, this meant everyone because “if everyone is a civilian, then who the hell did we fight all these years?”) The Serb commander and his wife moved into Aida’s apartment after the genocide only because they thought its inhabitants were all dead.

The scene where the Serb commander’s wife gives this final excuse to Aida is followed by my favourite scene in the film. Having asked the wife to move out as soon as she can, Aida leaves the apartment, walks down the stairs and runs into the commander, who greets her. He does this casually, as if nothing has happened. He acts as if he did not throw bread at the people who are now supposed to be his neighbours like they were animals just a few months earlier. Maybe he did not recognise her. In this brilliantly directed scene, we do not recognise him either, at least not right away.

Then the camera zooms in on his smug face, and we see a man who felt no shame in this encounter because he keeps telling himself every day that he did nothing wrong. We are looking at a sociopath, and this is a story where the sociopaths won. As Aida is descending the (literal and proverbial) stairs, he is going up. When he gets to the apartment, his son is waiting at the door to hug him. He still has a reason to come home. Aida only has her memories, packed so neatly in that box the wife gave her, almost as if she was doing her a favour.

But the worst thing about Aida’s pain is that it is simultaneously too big for one individual, yet completely unremarkable in a place as devastated as Srebrenica in 1995. In what is perhaps the best in a series of masterful directing choices, Quo Vadis, Aida? refuses to close up on its protagonist, even as she sifts through dozens of corpses to identify her murdered husband and sons. Instead, we see a wide shot of a number of women, young and old, widows and bereaved mothers, doing what Aida does. They are all in the same boat, all suffering in silence.

The birds will keep chirping and the insects will keep buzzing. Evil has won, and the universe is indifferent.

“Quo Vadis, Aida?” is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s entry at the 2021 Oscars (scheduled for April 26th). It has been shortlisted as one of five remaining contenders in the Best International Movie category.

Kristijan Fidanovski is a PhD researcher at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford, where he examines pronatalist policies in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies from Georgetown University and a BA in the same field from University College London. His other research interests include EU integration, bilateral disputes, and conspiracy theories.

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