QUO VADIS, AIDA?
(By Gina Meardon)
Quo Vadis, Aida? (2020) is a co-production between Bosnia-Herzegovina, Romania, The Netherlands, Germany, Poland, France, Turkey and Norway. It is a drama-history-war feature film on Netflix UK. 1 hour 41 minutes. Cert 15 UK. In Serbo-Croatian, Bosnian, English, Dutch and Serbian with subtitles.
“Bosnia, July 1995. Aida is a translator for the UN in the small town of Srebrenica. When the Serbian army takes over the town, her family is among the thousands of citizens looking for shelter in the UN camp. As an insider to the negotiations Aida has access to crucial information that she needs to interpret. What is on the horizon for her family and people, rescue or death? Which move should she take?” IMDb.
Jasna Djuričić as Aida Selmanagić
Izudin Bajrović as Nihad Selmanagić
Boris Ler as Hamdija Selmanagić
Dino Bajrović as Sejo Selmanagić
Johan Heldenbergh as Colonel Karremans
Raymond Thiry as Major Franken
Boris Isaković as General Ratio Mladić
Emir Hadzihafizbegović as Joka
Reinout Bussemaker as Colonel Dr Robben
Teun Luijkx as Captain Mintjes
Juda Goslinga as Lieutenant Rutten
Jelena Kordic Kuret as Chamila
Alban Ukaj as Tarik
Ermin Bravo as The Mayor
Edita Malovcic as Vesna
Micha Hulshof as Major De Haan
Joes Brauers as Boudwijn
Director: Jasmila Žbanić
Writers: Jasmila Žbanić (Screenplay), Hasan Nuhanović (inspired by his book “Under the UN Flag, 2007.”)*
Original Music: Antoni Lazarkiewicz
Cinematography: Christine A. Maier
Editor: Jaroslaw Kaminiski
*”Under the UN Flag: The International Community and the Genocide in Srebrenica, an account of the terror and inhumanity experienced by those seeking sanctuary from genocide and placing their lives and their trust in the hands of the peacekeepers.” (Interdisciplinary Humanities Centre, February 2021)
Writer Hasan Nuhanović is a Bosnian Muslim who worked as a translator for the United Nations. He worked with the Dutch Battalion (Dutch Bat3) tasked with protecting the unarmed civilian population of Srebrenica and the character of Aida and what happened to her family is actually based on Hasan himself. In this short film he is interviewed about what happened at the UN Base:
UN Fails Srebrenica, in English
In July 1995 the small town of Srebrenica in Eastern Bosnia was under siege and overrun by the army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ARBiH) and units of the Bosnian Serb Army of Republic Srpska (VRS) under the command of General Ratko Mladić. The United Nations declared the town and surrounding area a “safe area” under UN protection. The Muslim population (20,000 to 25,000) fled to the nearby UN army base as Mladić’s army captured the town, but only around 4,000-5,000 people made it inside, the vast majority spread around the perimeter outside and nearby factories.
The UN base was guarded by just 370 lightly armed Dutch soldiers and the UN had failed to demilitarise both the army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ARBiH) and Mladić’s units.
Quo Vadis, Aida? Where are you going, Aida? Essentially I wanted to see this film because it had just won Best International Film at the European Film Awards in Berlin, beating films such as Compartment No. 6 (Finland), The Hand of God (Italy) and Titane (France). I knew it was set during the Bosnian war and was about Srebrenica, but honestly, I was not prepared for what unfolded over the coming 1 hour and 41 minutes. That said, this human, heart-rending film, has to be seen, because we must not be complacent in thinking that history does not ever repeat itself, it does, time and time again.
Quo Vadis, Aida? begins in an apartment, its occupants, Aida’s family, sitting together, digesting the realisation that their town, under bombardment, is about to fall and they are in imminent danger, this is a powerful ‘still-life’ sequence.
There then follows a meeting between the Dutch UN commander and Srebrenica’s mayor, with Aida as interpreter, where assurances are given that the people are safe and they should remain at home. The Serbs ‘have been given an ultimatum’ and will be bombed if they attack. Aida is acting as a translator but neither she nor the mayor is convinced of the promises they are given. He warns the Commander, Colonel Karramans, that he will be held accountable, “I am just the piano player” is the Colonel’s response.
Early the next morning the town is bombed and there is a mass exodus from Srebrenica of its Muslim population of men, women and children, and they are all heading to one place, the ‘safety’ of the Dutch UN compound, under the command of the ‘piano player’ Colonel Karremans.
Aida Selmanagić is one of just 2 interpreters working at the UN base which is being over-run by terrified civilians fleeing the oncoming Bosnian-Serbs. She was the teacher at the local school and her husband, Nihad, was the headmaster. She has two young adult sons, Sejo, 2 days shy of his 18th birthday and Hamdija, who is just a little older. You watch a woman trying to do her job, passing instructions from the Dutch to the civilians while trying to reassure townspeople she has known all her life that everything is under control; at the same time becoming increasingly fraught and fearful for her own family who is yet to make it to the safety of the compound.
At the side of a harassed Dutch army doctor, Colonel Dr Robben, she is trying to relay instructions as they rush from one part of the base to the other. More and more people are pouring in, and all the while she is asking, “Have you seen my sons? Have you seen my husband?”
Finally, she pleads time away to find her family, but she is told only if she can find the other interpreter to cover for her, and he is at the gate. As she makes it out of the buildings and into the open compound, she, and we, see the scale of people desperately trying to get inside the gates, which have now been closed. No one else will be allowed in. And this is when it hits you… What will happen to all those people outside? And how safe are the people within the gates?
Actress Jasna Djuričić is outstanding as Aida, conveying both her mental strength and increasing desperation to save her husband and sons. She works tirelessly over the 2 days that the events unfold trying to do the right thing for her family and her people whose plight is pitiful. The base has no food, water, beds, fuel or even toilets for those seeking shelter and no help is forthcoming when the base commander Karremans pleads with his superiors at the UN for it. And here you feel sympathy for him, faced with impossible choices. Because the chain of command is ‘unavailable’ to him he asks for advice from the Dutch Government.
In a quiet moment, Aida reflects on a time before the war broke out, when the town got together for a beauty contest, and they were happy and dancing; her son singing in the band. Here, as at the start of the film, the camera lingers deliberately over individual people in a sequence chillingly reminiscent of the filming techniques deployed by the Nazis when they filmed Jews on the transports or in the ghettos.
There are other scenes for me in this film that have strong parallels with the Nazi treatment of Jews, and I am sure that is intentional. The first I will not disclose to you, but you will know. You. Will. Just know… when you see it towards the end of the film. Another is when Aida returns to her apartment after the war is over and finds it has been given to a Bosnian Serb family, something which happened a lot with surviving Jewish refugees returning home after the Second World War.
Quo Vadis, Aida? is a narrative of what happened over those 2 days in July 1995 in Srebrenica . It is also a fierce indictment of the failure of the UN (Dutch Battalion, Bat 3) to fulfil their remit to protect the people of Srebrenica; they were glaringly under-prepared. This is vividly shown in the scenes where Mladić’s swaggering soldiers arrive at the base and demand entry to check that the Muslim men sheltering inside are not soldiers and armed. The young Dutch soldiers are intimidated and powerless to stop them, a moment which is (if it were at all needed) a severe wake-up call to Aida. Even more ironic is that the commander of these soldiers, realising the people are hungry and without food and water, brings them bread.
Just like the transports that rolled on those infamous train tracks to the Nazi death camps, we know where this film is headed and it is chillingly played out. The Dutch ARE played, out-manoeuvred and helpless. As Colonel Dr Robben tells the Serbian propaganda cameraman “I KNOW what you are doing here.”
The crowd scenes throughout the film are excellently filmed, the cinematography and direction are strong, conveying the fear and panic when the buses are loaded, and again, here there are chilling nods to the transports – women and children to the right, men to the left…
Yet, despite the ethnic cleansing of Srebrenica which the film captures in all its forms, it finishes with hope, with the new generation of children, born after, or too young to remember the genocide, putting on a production for their parents (many of them survivors, who have rebuilt their community) at their school. Aida is their teacher; she is a survivor.
Would I recommend Quo Vadis, Aida? Absolutely, even if I am sitting here fighting back tears as I write this. It is a monument to those who died and those who suffered and spent years waiting for news of their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. It is a monument to everyone who worked to bring the perpetrators to justice and for those who spent years uncovering remains and identifying them so that they could be returned to their families for a proper burial. And it serves as a reminder that nothing like this should EVER be allowed to happen again.
I cannot applaud the international cast and crew enough: Johan Heldenbergh as Colonel Karremans, as a Commander with no power or support, and Reinout Bussemaker as Colonel Dr Robben, the doctor who sends 3 busloads of wounded to hospital – only to find they never arrived. The real Dr Robben is interviewed in the short documentary film I have linked in the Notes above.
I have to ask this: Quo Vadis, Aida? was Bosnia and Herzegovina’s nomination for the 2021 Academy Awards, which was won by Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round. As much as I have always applauded that film, I do wonder why it was preferred over a film as serious as this and Jasna Djuričić not nominated for Best Actress?
”People are not little stones, or keys in someone’s pocket, that can be moved from one place to another just like that … Therefore, we cannot precisely arrange for only Serbs to stay in one part of the country while removing others painlessly. I do not know how Mr. Krajšnik and Mr. Karadžić will explain that to the world. That is genocide.” General Ratko Mladić (July 1995).
The list of missing people, compiled after the massacre, contains 8,373 names. By July 2012 6,838 victims had been identified from DNA of body parts recovered from mass graves. By July 2021 6,671 had been re-buried at the Memorial Centre of Potočari, with another 236 buried at other sites.
In 2004 The Hague ruled that the massacre of Srebrenica’s male inhabitants was genocide, a crime under international law; it was upheld in 2007. The forcible transfer and abuse of (up to) 30,000 Bosnian women, children and elderly, which accompanied the massacre, was also found to constitute genocide.
In 2013, 2014 and again in 2019, the Dutch State was found liable in the Dutch Supreme Court and in The Hague District Court, for failing to do enough to prevent more than 300 of the deaths.
General Ratko Mladić was found guilty of genocide at a UN Tribunal in 2017 and sentenced to life imprisonment. Radovan Karadžić, former President of Republika Srpska, was found guilty in 2016 of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 40 years imprisonment.
23 Wins including:
European Film Award, Best European Film 2021
European Film Award, Best European Director, 2021
European Film Award, Best European Actress (Jasna Djurčić) 2021
International Spirit Award, Best International Film, 2021
Göteborg Film Festival Dragon Award, 2021
Jerusalem Film Festival, 2020, Special Mention, Best International Film
Les Arcs European Film Festival, 2020 Audience Choice Prize
Les Arcs European Film Festival, 2020 Crystal Arrow Best Feature Film
Miami Film Festival, 2021, Knight Marimbas Award
Miami Film Festival, 2021, Rene Rodriguez Critics Award
Rotterdam International Film Festival, 2021, Audience Award
Sofia International Film Festival, 2021, Best Balkan Film
Vilnius International Film Festival, 2021, Audience Award
20 Nominations including:
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Official Oscar Selection for Best International Film 2022
BAFTA Film Award, Best Film Not in the English Language, 2021
BAFTA Film Award, Best Director, 2021
Brussels International Film Festival, 2021, Grand Prix
European Film Award, 2021, European Screenwriter (Jasmila Zbanić)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, 2021, LAFCA Award Best Film Not in the English Language
Oslo Pix, 2021, Oslo Grand Prix Best International Film
San Sebastian International Film Festival, 2021, FIPRESCI Film of the Year
Seville European Film Festival, 2020, Golden Giraldillo Best Film
Sydney Film Festival 2021, Sydney Film Prize Best Film
Venice Film Festival, 2020, Golden Lion, Best Film
Quo Vadis, Aida? Official Trailer, in English Language and with Subtitles
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