Jasna Đuričić discusses the elaborate rehearsal process that got her into character for Quo Vadis, Aida?.
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This interview was facilitated with the help of a translator.
In our introduction to Aida (Jasna Đuričić), she is sat at a meeting table between several Dutch UN officials and the mayor of Srebrenica. The group sits in silence, and Quo Vadis, Aida? director Jasmila Žbanić cuts to each of them individually, as they glance around the table with a mix of hesitancy and hopelessness, willing someone else to gather the nerve to speak. Aida’s expression is different. She also looks around, but more frantically, her breathing faster. Her face is set in a frown that implies anger and frustration rather than resignation. While the others are able to speak but don’t know what to say, Aida is itching to step in, but unable to do so. She is a translator, there to relay other people’s words but withhold her own.
Žbanić told me that Aida was inspired by “many women that I know who were lionesses” during the Bosnian war. Jasna Đuričić, whom we named the best leading actress performance of the 2020 movie season, is formidable in the role. Aida is a school teacher from Srebrenica who finds herself thrust into the role of a UN translator during the war. Very early in the film, the Serbian army invades Srebrenica and the townspeople flee to a nearby UN base. From there, Quo Vadis, Aida? unfolds as a ticking-clock thriller, leading up to the tragic events of the 1993 Srebrenica massacre. Aida, a fictional character, is our window into the tragedy, attempting to fulfill her job as a translator while also securing safety for her husband and two sons.
“[Translating is] a hard job,” Đuričić told me when we spoke over Zoom. “You have to be witty, and you have to be fast when you translate in a situation like that. You have to think really carefully [so as] not to say something wrong. And you have to be neutral, not to take sides, or not to have an opinion, which is hard, because of where the character is.” Aida works for the UN, but she belongs to Srebrenica, so neutrality is difficult when relaying UN messages to her townspeople that she knows could get them killed. She is only neutral when it comes to relaying the UN officials’ words as accurately as possible. Đuričić communicates Aida’s anger, frustration, and confusion through the way her neck and jaw tenses. She looks down and around as she translates to the townspeople, ashamed to look them in the eye while delivering fatal news.
For Đuričić, taking the part of Aida was a no brainer. “I’ve known Jasmila for many years,” she told me. “We worked together before Quo Vadis, Aida? [on For Those Who Can Tell No Tales].” Đuričić, who hails from Serbia, is a seasoned actor in both film and theatre, as well as a lecturer on acting. “Jasmila is a director who follows actors not only in film [but also in] theatre,” she explained. “She watched many of my theatre performances, which is special for film directors.”
The character of Aida didn’t fully emerge until sometime after Đuričić agreed to be in the film. She told me, “I was in the project from the very beginning, [but] the main role in that first screenplay was not Aida. The oldest son was the main character, and in that version, I was [just his] mother. It’s the same role, but a lot changed. Aida became the main character.” Đuričić has such a ferocious, captivating energy in the film that it’s hard to imagine anchoring the film around anyone else. You can’t tear your eyes away from her.
That feeling of being the centre of attention, even to an uncomfortable extent, was actually explored during the lengthy rehearsal process for Quo Vadis, Aida?. “One day, we had a very good [rehearsal] in a small theatre in Sarajevo, because the crew is so big. In an empty space, they put [about] thirty chairs in a semicircle. In the centre of that semicircle was my chair, with my name, Jasna, [written on it]. I was scared to death. I was so frightened because I was in the centre. But that was Jasmila’s way to say to me, ‘You’re the main role, and you have to take things in your own hands. That’s why you’re in the middle.’”
The pressure of having hundreds of eyes on you is at the core of Aida’s character. Even though she’s not the one calling the shots, she’s still responsible for the lives of her friends, family, and neighbours, by virtue of her position as a translator. Đuričić expertly communicates this mounting pressure through the tension in her body, and the way her pace quickens as she rushes around the UN base, growing more and more desperate as time runs out. It’s a performance of a woman experiencing traumatic events that doesn’t feature a full on emotional breakdown until the end.
Instead of crying and screaming, we understand Aida’s distress through how much she’s visibly holding in: every part of her body and voice are tense, and her words come out harsh and sharp. She doesn’t have time for a breakdown, because she’s always thinking at a hundred miles an hour — Đuričić’s eyes flit from side to side, and she’s constantly getting distracted from the person she’s supposed to be talking to. She’s trying to puzzle a way to get her family to safety.
Because everything Aida does in the film is driven by a desire to protect her family, establishing that family bond was essential to the rehearsal process. Đuričić described “many rehearsals with only [the actors playing the] family, in the flat [where the characters live together]. We were talking about family past, about how Aida met her husband, everything. I think it’s a very good way [of rehearsal] for actors. I know that way from the theatre. The results are so good and so big, because when you work that way, in one moment, you know everything about your character. You’re armed with the history of your character. For the actor, the most important thing is to have the experiences of your character. You don’t have to think about, ‘Oh, what happened here,’ because you did it. You lived through it, and you’re acting the consequences of the thing you already did.”
The final stage of Žbanić’s elaborate rehearsal process was rehearsals in the actual film sets. The actors played through the entire film from start to finish, uninterrupted, accompanied by the camera. “It was fantastic,” Đuričić remembered. “We went through the whole film I think two times [with the camera]. After that, I felt very safe, because I knew everything. Jasmila’s fantastic. Jasmila doesn’t leave anything to chance. So everything is tight.”
Of course, there was another sort of preparation Đuričić had to do on her own: she had to learn how to be a translator. “I have many problems with my English,” she explained. “I had many, many rehearsals for [the] English language. Not only for [the] English language but for [the] Bosnian dialect, also, because the accent and dialect from Srebrenica is so specific. I was very lucky because Jasmila found a lovely person, Flora, who is also an actress from Britain. I worked with her, and it was so good. It’s a very big difference when you’re working with someone who is an actor or an actress. She puts the sentence in the action right away. She gives pointers on how that should be pronounced, not just grammatically. Actors put emotion in the centre, always. When you have someone who does that instantly, it’s easier.”
When I asked Đuričić how she found Aida’s physicality, she immediately mentioned the importance of shoes. “Shoes are one of the most important things for an actor,” she elaborated. “Each type of shoe has its way of walking. You don’t walk the same in sneakers or shoes.” Aida’s clothes and shoes told Đuričić a lot about the character, as well as physically affecting the way she moved. “[Aida wears] very hard workers’ boots and workers’ clothes. It was so important that Aida don’t look like a UN official, because Aida is something [in] between. She works for the UN, but she’s from Srebrenica, and she’s not a professional translator. The job came with the war. During the war, the UN found people who knew some English, so they could help them through their mission. Nobody there was a professional translator.”
I wrapped up our conversation by asking Đuričić what the most challenging scene to shoot was. It didn’t take long for her to come up with an answer: “It’s the identification scene.” At the end of the film, there’s an epilogue set many years after the massacre, in which Aida returns to Srebrenica and identifies the skeletons of her family based on the clothes they were wearing when they died. Žbanić tried to make the scene as real as possible. She didn’t tell Đuričić where the correct bodies were located, so when we see her in the film, she’s actually searching, and the shock of discovery is real. “It was hard for me and for everyone, for all the crew,” Đuričić recalled. “I think it’s normal why that scene [was so hard]. Everything was so real.”
The memory of shooting that scene seemed so emotionally charged for Đuričić that I didn’t probe further. It’s one of the most heartbreaking moments of her performance because it’s the first time we see her truly break down, unleashing all the grief and trauma that Aida held in during the rest of the film. While that scene is shot from a distance, as if to give room to Aida’s grief, the final shot of the film, a few scenes later, focuses on Đuričić’s face, pushing in from a mid-shot to a closeup. Aida is back in a teaching position in Srebrenica, watching the children she teaches perform at a school concert — a new generation of Srebrenica citizens, born from the men who committed the genocide. They will grow up in a society that pretends the massacre never happened. From a distance, she looks happy, her lips turned up in a slight smile. But the closer Žbanić’s camera gets to her face, we realise it’s forced: her lips are smiling, but her eyes are grave. A cold stare conceals years of anger and trauma that have been bottled inside once more.
Quo Vadis, Aida? is available on VOD in the US and the UK. It will be available on VOD in Canada tomorrow (April 6th).
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