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Quo Vadis, Aida? : Film Review Cineuropa

CINEUROPA September, 9 | Marta Bałaga

VENICE 2020: There is no time to catch one’s breath in Jasmila Žbanić’s powerful film, closing in on a teacher-turned-translator for the UN in Srebrenica trying to find her way

Although having nothing to do, one assumes, with Henryk Sienkiewicz’s historical novel about the persecution of the early Christians in Rome, Jasmila Žbanić’s Quo Vadis, Aïda?, playing in Competition at the 77th Venice Film Festival, is a proper heart attack of a film. Fast-paced and unforgiving, it closes in on Aïda (Jasna Đuričić, fantastic), a teacher-turned-translator for the UN in Srebrenica trying to find her way after it suddenly turns into hell once the Serbian army takes over. Also in focus are her husband and two sons, still hidden somewhere among those desperately begging for shelter in the camp. 

The film has something of a Dunkirk -like, out-of-breath approach to war as Aïda is literally running for her family’s life. As the person who constantly accompanies those who are supposed to be in charge, she knows a lot – too much to just accept their promises, and too much not to have a problem with repeating these empty words to all the tired, confused faces. She is told, in two languages of course, that “the Dutch closed the gate,” even though Srebrenica was declared a UN safe zone. 

As time is running out and the whole place keeps shrinking somehow, Žbanić’s film (edited by Cold War’s wizard Jarosław Kamiński) plays out like a proper thriller. Frankly, the only thing missing is a 24-themed countdown clock. But – this probably doesn’t need a spoiler alert, given Srebrenica’s gory infamy – don’t expect any saviours nor last-minute twists of fate in this tale, as even a man so confident that help will come eventually shuts himself in a room, asking to be left alone.

This heaviness matches the subject matter, but the film is also immersive and incredibly engaging. Time slows down just for one flashback, to a happier time at the East Bosnia Best Hairstyle competition, no less. Yet soon enough, the plot returns to evading people’s questions and to the refrain of “what is he saying?!” repeated again and again, not that anyone really cares. It’s a small wonder that while there is not a minute to waste, certainly not for grandiose monologues, Žbanić (who, after all, won a Golden Bear for Grbavica) still shows every aspect of war: the lack of communication, the utter helplessness of just about everyone involved despite their declarations, and the realisation that there is no way out suddenly hitting you like a cold sweat. The fact that she doesn’t talk about some remote past, but about an event from 1995 – one she has already described as “a huge trauma for all Bosnians” – makes it even more terrifying, especially when filtered through all these voices calling for “patriotism” these days. It’s very telling that in Quo Vadis, Aïda?, the people coming with the guns are the ones you know – Aïda’s old students from school, someone’s friend from university. It’s absurd and it’s scary, and it can happen again.

Written and directed by Jasmila Žbanić, Quo vadis, Aïda? was produced by Damir Ibrahimovich and the director for Deblokada Produkcija, co-produced by Coop99, Digital Cube, Extreme Emotions, Indie Prod, N279 Entertainment, Razor Film Produktion, Tordenfilm AS, Österreichischer Rundfunk (ORF), and TRT (TR). International sales by Indie Sales.

Quo Vadis, Aida? : Film Review The Hollywood Reporter

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER September, 3 | Deborah Young

Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Zbanic, whose debut feature 'Grbavica' won Berlin’s Golden Bear, views the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica through the eyes of a courageous UN interpreter.

Shot without big stars or a convoluted plot, without heroes but with plenty of cowards, Jasmila Zbanic’s Quo Vadis, Aida? plunges the viewer into the raw horror of ethnic cleansing during the war in Bosnia Herzegovina. Seen through the eyes of  a UN interpreter, events unfold on July 11, 1995, in the small town of Srebrenica, which entered into history when units of the Bosnian Serb army commanded by Ratko Mladic murdered more than 7,000 civilians, primarily men and boys, and raped the town’s women.

Zbanic’s expert telling is simple and to the point, relying on the audience’s empathy with the anguished interpreter to reach the heart of darkness in this tragic story. It may be the definitive account of Srebrenica on film, and it opened Venice competition (it is also playing in Toronto) on a somber high note.

The subject is horrifying but the screen is hard to look away from, as the situation becomes a powder keg of tension. Though there have been serious documentaries made over the years, photographic exhibits and other memorials, Zbanic’s fictionalized screenplay sucks the viewer into the nightmare of Srebrenica, where Mladic’s murderous soldiers triumphantly swagger through a deserted town and the residents flee to what they think is the safety of a United Nations compound. The film is a grave indictment of the way UN forces reneged on their promise to bomb the Serbs if they attacked the population. Stymied by bureaucracy and political unwillingness to irritate Serbia, they inertly allow thousands to be loaded onto buses and taken to their deaths.

There is absolutely no feeling of the Euro pudding in this international co-production, which includes Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria, Romania, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, France, Norway and Turkey. On the contrary, the Sarajevo-born Zbanic takes a very personal approach, echoing the heart and guts of her first feature Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams, which won the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2006. But whereas Grbavica confronted the post-war legacy of Bosnian women raped by Serbs during the war, the current film goes directly for the pain and fear of the moment itself.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Aida (Jasna Djuricic), a local woman whose husband was once the town’s schoolmaster and whose two grown sons are dangerously exposed to the invading army. Working as an interpreter for the Dutch UN peacekeeping battalion, who in that moment is deployed in the region, she is a  tough-minded professional privy to high-level intelligence.  That morning, as Mladic’s forces roll into town behind huge armored tanks, Aida translates at a tense meeting between ranking UN colonel Thom Karremans (Johann Heldenbergh) and the city mayor, who is visibly upset. The UN promises air strikes on the Serbs if they break a new ultimatum, but no one is convinced they’ll carry through. Aida’s worst fears are confirmed when the colonel calls headquarters for urgent instructions and is told everyone up to the Secretary General is on vacation.

As the Serbs enter the town, its 30,000 residents head for a vast UN hangar surrounded by fencing. The Dutch contingent allows in only 5,000 before shutting the gate; everybody else is forced to camp outside. An overhead crowd shot shows a vast sea of people that seems truly endless. As the situation rapidly degenerates, Aida puts her duties on hold to look for her husband Nihad (Izudin Bajrovic) and sons on the other side of the fence. The only way she can get them inside is to volunteer Nihad for a “citizen’s meeting” with Mladic himself (played with frightening sobriety by Boris Isakovic).

It’s a toss-up whether the citizens involved will ever return from this encounter, where even Karremans finds himself under the thumb of the Serbian commander. When Serbs armed to the teeth confront the young Dutch guards at the UN camp, it’s no contest. They march inside the crowded hangar, intimidating everyone. When Mladic arrives they start loading people onto buses which, the people are told, will take them to a nearby town and safety. The men and women are separated. The rest takes place off-screen.

Aida, however, has overheard enough to know she has to smuggle her sons out of the camp somehow. Serbian actress Jasna Djuricic (White White World) is mesmerizing in the main role: Fighting like a lioness for her cubs, she badgers, bullies and implores the people she works for to give them UN documents. The tension and excitement mount as one escape path after another is closed off to them. And we know what fate awaits them if they don’t get out.

Though the film’s title at first seems arbitrary, the Latin quo vadis? (Where are you going?) echoes the Biblical scene when the apostle Peter, fleeing from crucifixion in Rome, meets the risen Christ on the road and asks him this question. Jesus replies that he’s going to Rome to be crucified again, and Peter gathers his courage and returns to Rome and to crucifixion. It is a poignant gloss on the film’s heartbreaking closing scene, which, against all odds, suggests a note of optimism for the future.

Quo Vadis, Aida? : Film Review IndieWire

INDIE WIRE September, 15 | Jude Dry

‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’ Review: A Gripping and Tragic Feminist Drama About Bosnian Genocide

TIFF: Jasmila Žbanic's finely crafted epic exposes unspeakable Bosnian War horrors through the eyes of a mother and UN translator.

Films set among genocide can border on “trauma porn,” while a few like “Life Is Beautiful” and “The Pianist” reach divine heights by setting deeply human stories amongst unimaginable horrors. “Quo Vadis, Aida?”, the latest film from celebrated Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Žbanic, is one such transcendent entry into the genre. The fact that the tragedy at its center is rarely remembered outside of its region makes it all the more powerful as a vital work of art.

The film dramatizes the horrific events of the Srebrenica massacre, otherwise known as the Srebrenica genocide, during which Serbian troops sent 8,372 Bosniak men and boys to their deaths in July 1995. Named for its fearless protagonist, “Quo Vadis, Aida?” exposes the events through the eyes of a mother named Aida (Jasna Ðuričić), a schoolteacher who works with the United Nations as a translator. After three and a half years under siege, the town of Srebrenica, close to the northeastern Serbian border, was declared a UN “safety zone” in 1993 and put under the protection of a Dutch battalion working for the UN.

The film opens with Aida translating a negotiation between the town mayor and a Dutch colonel. She’s a neutral observer, but the exchange escalates quickly and leaves town officials feeling uneasy. A man and his two adult sons evacuate their modest apartment, hurrying through mundane tasks like borrowing sneakers and emptying the cash box. Despite the UN’s promises, bombs begin to descend and the entire town evacuates to the Dutch-controlled UN base. However, the base can only hold so many and nearly 20,000 people are stranded outside, straining toward the wire fence separating them from their promised shelter.

Competent and steadfast, Aida bounces between the doctor and other high-ranking officers, dutifully translating their panicked orders and mixed signals. In between tasks, she scurries away to find her husband and sons, the three men from the earlier domestic scene. They didn’t make it onto the base, so Aida convinces the officers to let them in: When the Republika Srpska general Mladic (Boris Isaković) demands a civilian committee to act as negotiators, she shrewdly volunteers her husband, earning him and their sons passage.

Huddled together on the base, where people have nowhere to relieve themselves, her son lights up a cigarette. “What did I say about smoking?”, Aida chides, as her husband tells her to let up. “My birthday is in two days,” her younger son remarks, and the family exchange bittersweet smiles. Such moments of respite are brief, although Aida does allow herself a small toke of a joint shared by a young nurse. As she closes her eyes and dozes off briefly, she is transported to happier times — a colorful party with familiar faces laughing and dancing. Holding hands in a circle, each figure gazes directly into the camera as they round the dance floor.

Žbanic builds tension slowly, never dropping the pressure but allowing the characters (and audience) room to breathe amongst the chaos. Up until the film’s harrowing final moments, the director only alludes to the most horrific details, keeping these just offscreen. A distant silhouette of a man shitting in the crowd; a potentially lethal armed search that ends with loaves of bread flying overhead; an attractive young woman dragged off to an unseen fate. It’s a merciful choice, and an effective one: The audience remains in Aida’s cautiously optimistic shoes, convinced she will find a way to save her family despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s an elegant way to tell a war story that preserves the characters’ humanity, but make the inevitable tragic ending all the more devastating.

Like her debut film “Grbavica,” which received the Berinale’s Golden Bear in 2006, Žbanic continues to center women’s perspectives in her work. War films are too often the realm of male directors, with their relentless violence and explosive action scenes. And yet, as Bosniaks know too well, too often it is women who must bear the brunt of war traumas and are left to pick up the pieces.

In “Quo Vaids, Aida?”, Žbanic lays bare the deeply human toll of violence and war. It’s not all IEDs and secret missions, which can glorify a trauma most filmmakers never endured. The simpler horrors are far more haunting: the former classmate sitting across from you with a gun, or the torturer wishing you good day years later. Beyond bullet holes and body counts, unimaginable atrocities give way to everyday indignities, thousands of tiny cuts overlaid on the unbearable weight of memory.

Quo Vadis, Aida? : Film Review Variety

VARIETY September, 5 | Jessica Kiang

‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’ Review: Harrowing, Vital Retelling of the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre

A Bosnian UN translator is torn between duty and family as events tailspin toward genocide in Jasmila Zbanic's tough, compelling drama.

Perhaps the most difficult task faced by any filmmaker attempting to commemorate an atrocity is to manage the vast disparities in scale. To communicate the extent of a war crime like the Srebrenica massacre, which saw 8,372 civilian residents of the Bosnian town, mostly men and boys, murdered by units of the Bosnian Serb Army in July of 1995, the canvas needs to be broad. But often, that scope can mean lower resolution when you zoom in, the individual human impact getting lost in the grain. But this is a perilous balance director Jasmila Žbanić (“On the Path,” 2006’s Berlin-winning “Grbavica”) achieves strikingly well in her deeply compelling, harrowing and heartbreaking “Quo Vadis, Aida?,” which reminds us that each of those 8,372 deaths is an individual, exponential multiplication of horror.

The most inspired creative decision in this sensitively fictionalized version of true events comes in the form of the film’s protagonist, Aida, a local Srebrenica resident who works at the Dutch-run UN base nearby as a translator, and is played with an absolutely convincing mixture of grit, nobility and ferocious maternal instinct by Serbian actress Jasna Đuričić. Aida’s position, straddling the bureaucracy of the UN’s enragingly ineffectual response to Serbian incursion into a town nominally under their protection, and her personal roles as wife and mother, places her at the exact nexus of institutional and individual involvement in the conflict. In some ways, her position parallels that of Zbanic, who as a filmmaker has a responsibility to contextualize the wider story, but as a Bosnian who, during the time of the massacre was living under siege in Sarajevo, also has an acute, personal stake.

Due to her “privileged” position (the UN pass that dangles around her neck takes on almost mythical importance as she is waved through barriers that determine life or death for others), Aida has unusual access to the local UN command led by the Dutch colonel Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh) and his second-in-command Franken (Raymond Thiry). Without exculpating them of personal responsibility, these men, and the other soldiers, doctors and translators who are Aida’s colleagues and friends on the UN base, are shown by Zbanic’s complex but clear-eyed screenplay, to be in an impossible situation. “We have rules here. We follow rules,” Franken tells her in response to her latest desperate negotiations on behalf of her family. But when you’re facing an enemy with no such code, does following orders issued far away for political reasons that will end the lives of thousands not become a sin all its own?

When Karremans’ superiors fail to deliver promised airstrikes, Serb forces, under Gen. Ratko Mladic (Boris Isaković), a war criminal notorious even then, roll into the town with impunity, and a column of refugees duly turns up seeking protection at the UN base. One of Aida’s sons, 17-year-old aspiring rock star Sejo (Dino Barjović) makes it to the relative safety of the overcrowded, under-resourced facility. But her school headmaster husband Nihad (Izudin Barjović) and fearful elder son Hamdija (Boris Ler) are shut out, along with thousands of others — a biblical expanse of humanity baking in the high summer heat outside the gates.

And so begins a series of escalating “Sophie’s choices” for Aida, whose job is to communicate increasingly impotent and sometimes demonstrably false, ultimately fatal UN orders to her frightened Bosnian neighbors, while also trying to extend her own UN protections to her family, to the exclusion of those others. And this is all before Mladic inevitably turns up at the base and starts ruthlessly dividing the refugees according to gender, and herding them on to transports. No one knows for sure where they are being taken, but the drivers come back looking haunted, chain smoking out of the window and avoiding everyone’s eyes.

There are ongoing debates around the aestheticization of atrocity, which recur periodically on the festival circuit as with last year’s Venice entry “The Painted Bird” or Rithy Panh’s Berlin 2020 title “Irradiated.” Zbanic avoids this trap by making a far more straightforward and unadorned film, unobtrusively but intelligently photographed by DP Christine A. Maier, yet still creating palpably intensifying drama, aided by the thriller rhythms of Jaroslaw Kominski’s editing. And taut as it is, the storytelling finds space for details that add to the film’s emotional and historical acuity: the burning of Nihad’s wartime journal; the banter of the Serbian Army troops who were Aida’s students pre-war; the way the swaggering Mladic magnanimously hands out bread and Toblerones and Coca-Cola to families he’s about to rip apart.

The Srebrenica massacre has become the subject of intense politicization, to the point of genocide denial in some quarters, to which the moral clarity of Zbanic’s film operates like a rebuke. This is not historical revisionism, if anything, “Quo Vadis, Aida?” works to un-revise history, re-centering the victims’ plight as the eye of a storm of evils — not only the massacre itself, but the broader evils of institutional failure and international indifference. Ending with an intensely moving epilogue that reads as both a slender hope for a co-operative future and a cry of anguish for survivors who even now must live alongside those perpetrators never brought to justice, this is a fiercely impressive recreation of impossible dilemmas that should never have arisen, a situation that never should have happened and a human catastrophe that must never be forgotten.

Quo Vadis, Aida? : Film Review Screen Daily

CINEUROPA September, 3 | Lee Marshall

‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’: Venice Review

Jasmila Zbanic directly addresses Srebrenica in this taut, compelling film

“Europe, Bosnia – July 1995”, reads the opening caption of Jasmila Zbanic’s powerful drama/denunciation of the events that led up to the massacre by Bosnian Serb forces of over 8,000 Bosniak civilians, most of them men and boys, in and around the town of Srebrenica. That word-order switch – “Europe, Bosnia” – becomes the leitmotif of a tense, compelling film that uses the true-life story of a UN interpreter to raise the question of how this genocide could have taken place on a continent seemingly hard-wired by history to never let this kind of thing happen again, under the watchful eyes of UN peacekeepers.

The energy and passion of Zbanic’s fresh, new, direct gaze at the conflict comes through in every frame

This is the first of Sarajevo-born director Zbanic’s films in ten years to directly address the war, and her first ever to be set (apart from a moving final coda) during the years of the conflict. Both Zbanic’s 2006 debut, Berlin Golden Bear winner Grbavica, and the follow-up, On the Path (2010) were about the its lasting traumas in present-day Bosnia, while since then, the director has explored other avenues, including Mamma-Mia-like romantic comedy in Love Island (2014).

The energy and passion of Zbanic’s fresh, new, direct gaze at the conflict comes through in every frame, partly due to the inspired casting of Serbian actress Jasna Duricic as Aida, an interpreter at the base outside Srebrenica manned by Dutch UN forces. Her loyalties are torn between job and family as she tries to save the husband and two young adult sons who have ended up among the Bosnian Muslim civilians placed under UN protection in this so-called ‘safe zone’. Throughout the film, Duricic modulates from competent professionalism and concern to steely determination to helpless desperation and terror. 

Zbanic worked with Ida and Cold War editor Jaroslaw Kominski to give a breathless thriller pace to a story that is essentially about how the world can sleepwalk, knowingly, into tragedy. It opens on the eve of the capture of Srbrenica by Bosnian Serb forces under Ratko Mladic – played here by Boris Isakovic as a wily, image-conscious authoritarian. The Dutch UN forces led by moustachioed, ramrod-straight career soldier Colonel Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh) give the town’s civic leaders an assurance that airstrikes will be called in to prevent the invasion. Pretty soon, however, Mladic is strutting through the wrecked and deserted streets of the town, accompanied by a TV crew which is thete to immortalise his every heroic gesture and speech. The Bosniak civilian population heads en masse to the UN peacekeeping compound of Potocari, where thousands are given refuge inside the base and thousands more, denied entry due to overcrowding, camp out just beyond the perimeter fence. Intepreter and sometime schoolteacher Aida finds her family split – her youngest, 17-year-old Sejo (Dino Barjovic), is inside, while her headmaster husband Nohad (Izudin Barjovic) and older son Hamdija (Boris Ler) are outside.

What follows plays out as a doom-laden three-way card game between a side with a pack consisting of 52 aces, a side playing an entirely different game called the Geneva Convention, and a side with no cards at all, just a mix of blind hope, fatalistic resignation and survival instinct. It’s Aida who embodies the latter, as it gradually dawns on her that the Dutch peacekeepers’ adherence to protocol and insistence on playing by the rules is just a figleaf covering what other armies would call surrender. But while the writer-director points an occasionally ironic finger at these nervous blonde soldiers in their shorts, and paints a picture of their commander, Karremans, as a man who first lets himself be hoodwinked by the charismatic Mladic (whose cigarette he fawningly lights at one point), then simply shuts the door of his office against the mounting evidence of atrocities, it’s also made abundantly clear that these besieged Dutch soldiers, who are out of food and fuel and out of their depth, have been betrayed by other invisible players in the international community who refuse to act, antagonise Serbia, or even answer the phone.

Aida is no saint herself. Her increasingly wild, frenetic attempts to save her family from a fate she foresees with increasing clarity are selfish, and distract her from a job which is also a duty – that of calming her fellow evacuees by acting as the voice of international reassurance and lawfulness. But paradoxically her human weakness becomes one of the film’s main strengths. Like the the glaring summer light which illuminates sweaty, tired faces amidst the ugly hangar-like buildings of the UN base, this driven woman’s mission becomes a universal story about the need to save something from the wreckage.

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