Film Review: Quo Vadis, Aida?


In July 1995, during the final months of the Bosnian War, Bosnian Serb soldiers massacred 8,000 Bosnian Muslim boys and men in what became known as the Srebrenica Genocide.

The massacre happened on the watch of the international community and the UN, who supposedly were protecting the Bosniak civilians. In Quo Vadis, Aida?’s devastating retelling of the atrocity, Sarajevo-born director Jasmila Zbanic captures the genocidal horror and the absurd international indifference that allowed it to happen.

For much of Quo Vadis, Aida? the titular protagonist (Jasna Djuricic) is stuck in one location, yet she is in constant motion: to where is she marching, indeed. Working as an interpreter for the UN in their self-declared ‘safe zone’ of the town of Srebrenica, we first meet Aida translating for UNPROFOR Colonel Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh) and the mayor of the besieged town. While the latter is beside himself with desperation, Karremans calmly reassures him that if the Serbs do not end their siege of Srebrenica, the UN will send in airstrikes.

Anyone familiar with the history of the massacre will already know that no airstrikes came. Historical context is unnecessary, however, to read the writing on the wall as Karremans blithely reassures the stricken mayor. His assurances are delivered with a naivety that is legible to everyone in the room except for him. Later, in a negotiation with Serb General Mladić, Karremans’ absurd trust that he can be safely entrusted with people who days earlier he displaced is horrifying: Karremans’ impressed little smile and creased eyes at Mladić’s honeyed promises are a tragic and infuriating summation of the UN’s ineffectiveness in the face of this humanitarian crisis.

There’s a frustrated rage at organisational indifference seething throughout the film. Aida, trapped in the UN base outside Srebrenica along with several hundred Bosniaks and thousands more outside – her family among them – spends the film fighting against a tide of bureaucratic inertia that will ultimately swallow them all. Even Karremans and his subordinate, Major Franken (Raymond Thiry) aren’t safe; it becomes obvious that their displays of apparent disinterest in the safety of their charges are coping mechanisms for a bureaucratic apathy further up the command chain that has left them with no information, no supplies and no plan.

Zbanic resists cutting away to UN higher-ups making the decisions, keeping us as powerless and in the dark as her subjects. Meanwhile, cinematographer Christine A. Maier keeps her camera close to the characters, in sync with Aida’s increasingly frantic movement around the base. The lurching motion of the camera evokes an encroaching sense of horror, creating an ironic visual momentum juxtaposed against the inevitable and immovable conclusion.

As a fictionalised account of what was once described as the worst European genocide in the post-war period, Quo Vadis, Aida? is wrenching and vital in its bitter grief. As a study of political and diplomatic inertia in the face of contemporary global human tragedies, it could not be more urgent.

Quo Vadis, Aida? is available to stream now on Curzon Home Cinema.

Christopher Machell