Writer-director Jasmila Žbanić discusses her blistering film about the Bosnian genocide, Quo Vaids, Aida?, which is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s entry for the Best International Feature Oscar. The film is available to watch in the UK via Curzon.
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Jasmila Žbanić’s Quo Vadis, Aida?, about the 1995 Bosnian genocide in Srebrenica, has stuck with me since I first saw it at TIFF last September (read my TIFF review). It’s one of the smartest, most empathetic, and complex films I’ve ever seen about a genocide, with an eye for both the individual human lives affected and the bureaucratic structures that allowed the genocide to happen.
Žbanić’s protagonist, Aida (the fierce Jasna Đuričić), is a translator, so she has one foot in the community of Srebrenica (where she’s from) and another in the offices of the UN, for whom she’s translating. Over the course of a few days, the Serbian army invades Srebrenica, and the townspeople gather in and around a nearby UN shelter, like sitting ducks at the mercy of Serbian General Mladić (Boris Isakovic). Throughout the chaos, Aida remains squarely focused on getting her husband and two sons to safety.
Žbanić, who was in her late teens and early 20s and living in Sarajevo during the war, had been wanting to tell this story for years. In fact, the aftermath of war is explored in several of her four previous fiction features, including For Those Who Can Tell No Tales, which was her first collaboration with Jasna Đuričić. The road to making Quo Vadis, Aida? was long, especially when it came to getting funding and shooting in a country where many still deny the genocide and herald General Mladić as a hero. Still, after persevering through a rocky development period, Žbanić has made one of the most moving and best films of the year.
I spoke to Žbanić over Zoom about making Quo Vadis, Aida?, which was chosen as Bosnia and Herzegovina’s entry to the International Feature Oscar. She described the challenges of getting the film made, her long and detailed rehearsal process, and why she wanted Aida to be a translator.
Seventh Row (7R): Could you tell me about the journey to making Quo Vadis, Aida? Why did you want to tell this story now?
Jasmila Žbanić: The journey was very long. I can’t say I wanted to make this story now because I thought I would do it five years ago. I researched the Srebrenica story many years before deciding to do the film. Living in Bosnia, I was, of course, well informed, but when I started researching, I noticed a lot of things I didn’t know.
It was quite a long screenwriting process because it’s very hard to explain what happened and who is who to people who aren’t familiar. When we watch Holocaust films, we know immediately what is the set up and who are bad guys, so it’s easier to get into the story. But with this film, people don’t know who the Bosnians are and what the UN was supposed to do, so it took a lot of time to find a way to invite audiences into the film and keep them interested.
Me and my partner, Damir Ibrahimovick, produced the film together. It was a long process of financing the film, because when we first applied [for Bosnian funding], we just got 5% of the money for the whole film. Everybody says Srebrenica is very important, but when we mention [to the Bosnian funding bodies], “Ah, Srebrenica is very important,” they didn’t react to that. Luckily, many European countries felt that it is an important European story, so we have nine countries as co-producers.
Another journey was [trying to] film it in Bosnia. We couldn’t film it in Srebrenica as the mayor denies the genocide happened. There are a lot of pro-fascist organisations promoting the killing of Muslims very openly. There are also a lot of people who think General Mladić was a hero, so it would be very, very difficult to film there. We had to change the strategy.
All the help from officials that is natural for many films was not given to us, like when we asked the Ministry of Defence for permission to film tanks. We were denied this permission for ten months. We worked on it through friends of friends of friends who know the minister — it was absolute madness.
When we finished the film, I was terribly sad that we didn’t have any tanks, and I was thinking how to do it, because fakes are never so good. Then, once we finished the film, they said, “Okay, you can have [tanks].” We got an announcement that we would get two tanks for just one day. We hoped rain would not come! Then, at 5 a.m., when we started shooting, one tank broke. Everything in the film is the one other tank, which we had to dress very quickly in a few hours of shooting.
7R: How did you approach the research process? There’s a lot of information in the film about the bureaucracy at the UN, but you also include lots of little, very specific details like the Serbian army handing out Toblerones to the crowd of Bosnians.
Jasmila Žbanić: There is a lot of footage from Mladić’s propagandist, the guy who was following him all the time — a camera man from Belgrade. All of this footage is available on YouTube, so Mladić’s appearance [in the film] and his sentences are almost [an exact] transcript. We did change certain things, or we had to squeeze several things into one [scene], but we really wanted to keep it [almost exact transcript]. We wanted to say to people who think Mladić is a hero, “This is what your hero is saying. We’re not making it up.”
There are a lot of survivors, so I had a chance to talk to them. A lot of them wanted to talk. There was a very valuable book by Hasan Nuhanović [called] Under the UN Flag. This is a guy who had a similar experience to Aida. At one moment, we thought about making a film about him, but it was difficult for him to go through this and have a film about him, so we decided not to go on in that direction.
This book really shows all these steps of how the UN communicated — what they said to people. So I had resources and many people were telling me what it was like on the ground. Another valuable resource for me was David Harland from the United Nations, who made the final report on what happened because he had the chance to meet everybody, from [Colonel] Karremans to [Major] Franken. [Karremans and Franken were the two UN officials who were on the ground in Srebrenica, whose job it was to negotiate with the Serbian army and protect the townspeople]. These people are alive, but didn’t want to talk to me, so it was very important that I have people who met them so I can check if my impression of them was right.
7R: How long did it take you to write the script?
Jasmila Žbanić: I wrote the first version of the script five years ago. While researching more and talking to people, I sent the script to people who’d never heard about Srebrenica. It was very good, because then you get this feedback. You understand what is necessary for clarity and what is necessary for the emotions.
What was great was that I had some actors one and a half years before filming. We did casting, and I was able to do reading rehearsals and staging. Even though, at that moment, we didn’t have money, we explored what was there. I filmed these rehearsals, and they helped me rewrite, because having people in flesh and blood is more truthful, and you get to feel their dynamic. Of course, when I have locations, some things change. You will see, “Ah, I can connect these two scenes.”
7R: How did you craft Aida as a character? She is very fierce, but she’s not a cliche saviour who is trying to save the entire town. Her focus is squarely on protecting her family.
Jasmila Žbanić: She is like many women that I know who were lionesses. They were my inspiration, from my mum to other women that I know who had such a difficult role in war, trying to rescue kids so that they could live. My mum didn’t have this challenge, but raising two teenagers with no food or electricity, with grenades falling on the city, is another kind of fight. These women who were around me were never complaining. They were really focused on how to create and rescue normal life, giving hope and being positive.
The women from Srebrenica were also a huge inspiration, because a lot of them organised themselves into associations of mothers and women. Their fight is such an inspiration. They wanted to make a memorial centre in Srebrenica for their loved ones, and the government of Srebrenica told them, “No, please, it’s too hard,” but they were like, “No way, we’re doing it.”
Also, having an experience of war, I know the human side of you shrinks. She’s [Aida is] trying to see the bigger picture, and she says, “Let all these people in.” But thenm when obstacles are coming, she’s shrinking, shrinking, shrinking until she says, “Okay, at least put one son on the list [to save his life].” Heroism in many films is fake. My film is a very anti-war movie because it shows that even if you are a wonderful person and have a wonderful family and life, the circumstances diminish you into a form which you find humiliating.
7R: Could you talk about casting Jasna Đuričić as Aida and how you developed the character of Aida together?
Jasmila Žbanić: Jasna and I collaborated on my film For Those Who Can Tell No Tales. She has a small part, but that’s where I met her, and I appreciate and love her very much. I’ve watched other films with her, and her theatre performances, and she’s just amazing. When we were doing casting, we didn’t [audition] for her role because the producer and I immediately said we knew she was the only person who could do it.
Because she is a Serbian actress, we knew it would be difficult for her to be in the film, but she didn’t hesitate at all. She immediately said, “Yes, I am doing it.” She is an incredible professional. She was absolutely prepared. She’s a very generous person, so we had a lot of time.
I created rehearsals with [the actors who play her] family. We [acted out scenes from the past that] went all the way to the moment when Aida and [her husband] Nihad met each other, when they married, when they had their first kid, etc. We stayed for a few days in the apartment where we were shooting [the scenes in their family home]. We went through problems [they may have had in their family history]. We’d do a scene where their son had cut his arm so you have to take him to hospital, and they would all improvise. Or [their other son] Hamdija broke up with his girlfriend, and he’s crying, so how will the family help him? That created a sort of memory for all the actors who were playing the family. It prepared them in a chemical way to feel for each other.
With my cinematographer, Christine Maier, we filmed all the rehearsals which happened on location. Shooting the film was very difficult because there were so many famous, busy actors on the schedule to coordinate. That meant that we would film a separation scene, and then two weeks later, we were shooting kids coming into the base. Everything was absolutely upside down. I knew that it was going to be a total mess if we didn’t prepare ourselves very well. So we shot from the first scene to the last scene, rehearsing it and going through it as if it was a theatre performance. This also helped us remember the rhythm, energy, and level of emotions, so when the actors had to act one scene pulled out of context, they knew where they were before and where they’re heading to.
7R: How did you work with your cinematographer, Christine Maier, to devise an aesthetic for the film?
Jasmila Žbanić: Christine and I met when we were students. She’s Austrian, but she lives in Berlin. We met because she and another Austrian colleague, Barbara Albert [who co-produced the film], were bringing donations from Austrian students to Sarajevo students just after the war. We started working then, and since then, we have worked very closely. She has done all of my films, even my documentaries.
Our main thing was to be on the level of Aida and of human beings. We both believe that war is the banality of evil. There is nothing spectacular or erotic in it, and we wanted to show that in every scene. We were never seduced by the power of soldiers or tanks, but always staying on the level of Aida. Even when she is not in the scene, she is metaphorically in the scene, because of her husband, or she is thinking about what is going on at these meetings, even if she’s not there.
We also wanted to show people’s faces. We were choosing the extras in the film very carefully because war is in the people, not in bombs and shells and whatever else. Plus, we thought, we will not give the spectacle of violence. This is something audiences have the power to imagine.
7R: What were you looking for when casting extras?
Jasmila Žbanić: Life experience and a mosaic of different characters. Some funny people, some sad people — not a uniform mass. Our aim was to give [the people in the crowd] individuality and humanity.
7R: How did you devise the first dialogue scene, in which we’re introduced to Aida as she translates a conversation between the mayor of Srebrenica and the UN officials? I found it such a compelling character introduction, because Aida is translating other people’s words, but she feels like a part of the conversation because you can tell she’s incredibly invested in what she’s translating.
Jasmila Žbanić: This is a very important scene because it’s giving the setup of the UN promising that they will involve aircrafts [to combat the Serbian army] and that there is no way Srebrenica will be run over by Serbian troops.
Aida has to play two things at the same time. In many scenes, what I talked about with Jasna was playing opposite emotions and opposite thoughts. On one hand, [she is] somebody who is professional and has to do exact translation; on the other hand, she’s adjusting the sentences and some of the lines. She’s scared when the mayor is screaming because she knows it could be a catastrophe for everybody. So she is somebody who is emotionally involved.
That’s why I chose the role of a translator: it is such an ambivalent role. In the separation scene, she has to translate that her family has to leave. It is her who is saying this. Even though it’s translation, her mouth is producing these words. This is the case that I read about, and I was like, “Can you imagine something more horrible than having to do this?”
7R: The film is often quite fast paced, especially at the beginning and the end. But there is a period of rest in the middle of the film, at night, when Aida gets to talk to her family and friends, and she has a dream about pre-war times.
Jasmila Žbanić: This scene was in the script because I always thought it’s very important to understand these things were not happening to people because they are Muslims or because they are from Balkan tribes who are constantly fighting each other. It could happen to anybody. These people could never imagine that this could happen. We heard first reports of cities being taken by the army and war starting, but we thought, “No, no, no, this will finish in two to three days because people cannot be so stupid.” And this is the feeling I was looking to put in the film: these were people who didn’t expect war, and they had normal lives, celebrating and having fun.
For some reason I didn’t like [this scene] at the beginning [of the film], because there are many films that start like, “Ah, we live nicely,” then shit happens. This didn’t work for me, emotionally. [When structuring the film, we had the] very tense introduction with people being taken away, and problems with [getting her family into the UN shelter], and then I needed a moment where the family is in the shelter and she can relax a little bit. I thought this is a good moment to show this life how it was. I think it’s good because the audience can rest for a moment. It can be a reminder that we are talking about people that are like us, and maybe building up more of the emotional investment for the second part of the film.
I had the editor, Jaroslow Kaminski, and his assistant assembling shots during the shooting to see if there was anything missing. Jaroslow came and watched what we had and said, “Aida is running all the time, so we need a few additional shots where she is doing nothing in order to have changes in the rhythm.” So we did additional shots that were not in the script where she is just calm and the situation is calm, to let the audience breathe a little bit.
7R: How did you find the location for the UN shelter?
Jasmila Žbanić: We were planning to not be 100% accurate to how it was [in reality] but to have the essence of what was there. I wanted to have a building which was an ex-factory, because I think that it’s important to show that, in their previous lives, [the people of Srebrenica] would have been working in this factory, and now this factory doesn’t produce anything but death. I found it interesting that it is a socialist factory from the exterior and that they are surrounded by machines.
We knew it was not possible to be in Srebrenica. We found one ex-military barracks in the south of the country, but it happened that this location was also a concentration camp. We had situations where some of the extras were saying, “I was kept in this building.” This was like… “Wow, oh my gosh!” It’s crazy that this is a country where things like this can happen.
7R: What about Aida’s apartment? How did you work out how it would look, and how that would change when we see it in the beginning versus when she returns to it at the end of the film, after many years have passed and there are other people living there?
Jasmila Žbanić: My set designer [Hannes Salat] studied normal socialist apartments. [Most of our team] was Bosnian, but our set designer is Austrian, so we gave him a lot of photos from our apartments. It’s interesting because he would see things we Bosnians didn’t notice, but also sometimes, we’d think, “This thing is too Austrian. This is not how we would do it.”
For the New Year’s Eve celebration [shown in flashback] in the middle of the film, he put up so many [decorations]. There were lights and baubles and all of that. The whole space was crowded. So I came to Hannes, and I said, “We’re a socialist country, take away like 80% because we didn’t have this.” He is Austrian and from a Catholic background with huge golden celebrations.
Going back to the apartment [at the end of the film], we thought this new woman [who lives in the apartment now] has a new style, and her husband was definitely someone who profited from the war so they could afford to buy these rich things. Not rich in a global context, but in the scale of a small town. So we wanted to have bad art paintings and all this white and gold shiny stuff to show the new establishment in Srebrenica. By the end of the film, of course, [when Aida moves back in], the woman [who previously lived there] took everything that was hers, leaving just a table and a few things there, showing the emptiness of Aida’s soul.
7R: Did you always plan to include the epilogue at the end of the film, where we see Aida return to Srebrenica years after the genocide?
Jasmila Žbanić: When I started researching and planning the first concept, I thought we would end the film with killings, but it was not giving me what I wanted to say about this subject. What is horrifying for me is the next twenty-five years these mothers are living through. I couldn’t start a new film, but the subject of women searching for bodies and getting information about where the bodies are buried deserves a whole new two hours. I always thought, we have to be with Aida and see what her life is like after this; then we have a full picture of what the tragedy means. It’s not just three days in July, but a whole life is ruined for so many people, and still is.
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