Review: Sobering retelling of Srebrenica massacre brings tears


Quo Vadis, Aida?
Sydney Film Festival (November 3-21, 2021)
Rating: Four stars (out of five)

Stories set during times of war often reflect human nature in all its glory and ugliness, with true vulnerabilities on display. They render history poetically through the camera lens and force the audience to examine their own values and beliefs. Quo Vadis, Aida?, a film by Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Žbanić which was nominated for Best International Feature Film at this year's Academy Awards, is such a film – compelling, emotionally powerful and important.

Told from the on-the-ground, personal perspective of Aida Selmanagić, a translator working for the United Nations, the film acts as a memorial to the victims of the Srebrenica massacre. In July 1995, during the Yugoslav Wars, more than 8000 Bosniak men from the town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina were systematically separated from their families and murdered by the army of the Republic Srpska, a self-declared secessionist state of Bosnian Serbs supported by Serbia.

This is not an angry movie but a mournful, solemn memorial for the men who perished at Srebrenica and the women who had to live with the pain that comes with survival.

The Srebrenica massacre was part of a larger-scale ethnic cleansing campaign against Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats, the greatest genocide committed in Europe since the Nazis Holocaust in World War II. Quo Vadis, Aida? dramatises the days leading up to the tragic event and Aida's attempt to save her husband and two teenage sons, as displaced Bosniak families crowded into a UN peacekeeper base. Director Žbanic and cinematographer Christine A. Maier's camera shoots the film with tense closeups, always focusing on the facial expressions of each character.

The movie's title Quo Vadis, Aida? references a Latin phrase to ask the question of the titular character: "Where are you going, Aida?". Actress Jasna Duričić plays Aida with an undercurrent of pain, especially in the last few scenes of the film in which she conveys grief in an understated, realistic, and deeply moving way. The emotions are all in her eyes. We follow Aida as she struggles to maintain her composure while translating orders from an increasingly anxious Major Franken, the Dutch UN official in charge of keeping Srebrenica a "safe zone". Throughout the film, as the conditions in the peacekeeper base become more and more chaotic, a sense of impending doom envelops the audience, made all the more gut-wrenching by knowing the events depicted were based on a true story.

Although the bureaucracy and unpreparedness of the United Nations played a major role in allowing the massacre to take place, it never feels like Žbanic is indicting anyone other than the perpetrators. There's an exasperation as you feel the futility of any efforts the characters make to delay the inevitable. This is not an angry movie but a mournful, solemn memorial for the men who perished at Srebrenica and the women who had to live in the pain that comes with survival.

Serbian actor Boris Isaković, who is married to Duričić in real life, was initially hesitant of playing the part of Ratko Mladić – the general who was primarily responsible for the massacre and is currently serving a life sentence for committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Mladić is still supported and revered as a hero by some Serbian ultra-nationalists. Isaković's performance is filled with a quiet menace, recalling Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List.

Quo Vadis, Aida? is a compellingly-crafted wartime drama that provides dignity to those who were brutalised at Srebrenica in July 1995. The film, released 25 years after the massacre, has entered the social and political discourse of the former Yugoslav states and is a pivotal, courageous film that helps to explain the ongoing ethnic tensions in the Balkans.

Quo Vadis, Aida? is screening in-person and on demand as part of the 2021 Sydney Film Festival until November 21. Tickets at the festival website.

QUO VADIS, AIDA? - Official HD Trailer - Only In Cinemaswww.youtube.com


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