Quo Vadis, Aida?
Reviews, interviews, and podcast episodes about Quo Vadis, Aida?, one of the best films of 2021.
Our editors saw Quo Vadis, Aida? at TIFF 2020, and they haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. Here, you’ll find an introduction to the film, as well as a series of articles and podcasts delving into how it was made and why it’s so brilliant.
Jasmila Žbanić’s Quo Vadis, Aida? is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s entry for the 2021 International Feature Oscar. It premiered in competition at the 2020 Venice Film Festival, and later won the BankGiro Loterij Audience Award at the 2021 Rotterdam International Film Festival.
The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature, and nominated for the Best Director and Best Film Not in the English Language BAFTAs.
Quo Vadis, Aida? chronicles the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica, Bosnia. The film follows the fictional character Aida (Jasna Đuričić), a schoolteacher from Srebrenica who is employed by the UN as a translator during wartime. Over the course of a few days, Serbian troops invade Srebrenica, led by General Ratko Mladić. The townspeople are evacuated to a nearby UN shelter, where Aida aids the UN officials while trying to secure safety for her husband and two sons.
The Srebrenica massacre is the most significant event in the Bosnian genocide, which involved other wider crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing throughout areas controlled by the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS). These took place during the Bosnian War of 1992-1995, with the Srebrenica massacre taking place at the tail end of the war, in 1995. The Srebrenica townspeople we meet at the start of Quo Vadis, Aida? have already been living with war for several years.
The Bosnian war was sparked in 1992, following the passing of a referendum on February 29th that granted Bosnia and Herzegovina independence from Yugoslavia. At the time, Bosnia was made up of 44% Muslim Bosniaks, 32.5% Orthodox Serbs, and 17% Catholic Croats. Political representatives of the Bosnian Serb population boycotted the referendum and rejected its outcome. Bosnian Serbs mobilised their forces within the country in order to secure ethnic Serb territory, which sparked war and ethnic cleansing.
As seen in Quo Vadis, Aida?, the Serbian army primarily, although not exclusively, targeted Muslim Bosniaks. The victims of the Srebrenica massacre were mostly men, although many women were raped and murdered. 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were murdered and the remainder of the population (between 25,000 and 30,000 Bosniak women, children and elderly people) was forced to leave the area.
To this day, many powerful people in Bosnia and Herezegovina deny the genocide happened. Jasmila Žbanić told us, “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.” Much of the film’s funding comes from various other European countries, as it was difficult for Žbanić to get support from funding bodies within Bosnia to tell a story about Srebrenica.
Some additional English-language resources on the Bosnian war: Wikipedia / Britannica / BBC / Images from the Bosnian war (The Atlantic) / The cause of the Bosnian war (The Borgen Project) / How the Bosnian war ended (Brookings)
Who is Jasmila Žbanić?
Jasmila Žbanić was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina on December 19th, 1974, to Bosniak parents. She lived in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, which cast a shadow over her late teenage years and early young adulthood.
Just after the war, Žbanić met two of her regular collaborators, cinematographer Christine Maier (who has shot all of Žbanić’s films) and producer Barbara Albert. Maier and Albert were Austrian students who travelled to Bosnia to bring donations to students struggling in post-war Sarajevo. Žbanić was studying at the Academy of Performing Arts in Sarajevo at the time, where she received a degree.
Žbanić then travelled to the United States to work as a puppeteer in the Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont. She also learned to act as a clown in a Lee De Long workshop.1
When Žbanić returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina, she founded the artists’ association ‘Deblokada’ (meaning ‘de-blocking’).2Through Deblokada, Žbanić wrote and produced many documentaries, video artworks, and short films.” Deblokada was founded with Damir Ibrahimović, Žbanić’s husband and regular collaborator, who produced many of her films.
Many of Žbanić’s fiction films and documentaries deal with the Bosnian war, as well as its aftermath and lasting trauma.
A list of Žbanić’s feature films:
- Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams (2006): A drama about a mother and daughter’s struggles in the wake of the Bosnian war, this film won the Golden Bear (the top prize) at the Berlin International Film Festival.
- Na Putu (On the Path, 2010): Follows a man’s shifting relationship with his girlfriend after he gets a job working in a Muslim community and his views become more extremist. This film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival.
- For Those Who Can Tell No Tales (2013): Žbanić’s first collaboration with Jasna Ðuricic, the star of Quo Vadis, Aida?. She takes a small, supporting role in this drama about an Australian tourist who discovers the legacy of wartime atrocities when she arrives in a small town on the Bosnia-Serbia border. Premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
- Love Island (2014): A comedy about a pregnant French woman who lives in Sarajevo with her Bosnian husband and their daughter. They go for a vacation at a Croatian island, where things get complicated when they all become attracted to a beautiful woman. This film which stars Ariane Labed, premiered at the Locarno Film Festival.
- Jedan dan u Sarajevu (documentary, 2014): Documents the long-term effects of the 1914 assassination of Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo, which is often cited as the cause for the First World War.
- Quo Vadis, Aida? (2020): Possibly Žbanić’s most acclaimed film to date, Quo Vadis, Aida? is an account of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre from the perspective of a fictional translator named Aida. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival and was later nominated for an Oscar for Best International Feature.
Review of Quo Vadis, Aida?
At TIFF 2020, Executive Editor Orla Smith raved about Quo Vadis, Aida? in her review, which explores how the film depicts power structures, complicity, translation, and violence.
Here’s an excerpt:
“It was a while into the first scene of Quo Vadis, Aida? before I realised that Jasna Ðuricic’s fierce lead character, Aida, was a translator. Facilitating a discussion between the mayor of her hometown, Srebrenica in Bosnia, and a pair of Dutch UN soldiers, she spends the scene simply relaying the words of the men in the room, but Ðuricic makes her opinions of the men’s decisions so clear that she could easily be mistaken for a participant. She shifts in her seat, her gaze set in a worried scowl, her eyes shifting restlessly between everyone in the room. She and the mayor exchange knowing looks as if silently communicating. When she translates, she speaks quickly in a stern tone, rushing the conversation along because she knows how urgent the matters being discussed are. Impartial translation is pretty much impossible in any case — you’re always adapting words and phrasing through your own lens — but especially for Aida, a citizen of wartorn Srebrenica.
This is 1995, in the heat of the war between the Serbian and Bosnian populations, and the Serbs are encroaching on Srebrenica in increasingly violent ways. Writer-director Jasmila Žbanic, who lived through the war, drops us straight into the action with this scene of negotiation between the mayor, who is concerned for the safety of his townspeople, and the UN soldiers, who assure him that the Serbs “have been issued an ultimatum” that will keep Srebrenica safe. Through Aida’s panicked eyes, we watch this hopeless conversation unfold as the soldiers naively reason that the Serbs won’t attack because the UN has warned that they will face “serious consequences” if they do.
This is the prologue to Quo Vadis, Aida?, a harrowing retelling of the genocide of the people of Srebrenica that grapples with the complicity of those who were ‘just doing their job.’ Although the film is brutal and disturbing, it refrains from showing us the most violent acts of the genocide, like the rapes and beheadings. Even when the mass genocidal slaughter occurs at the end of the film, Žbanic shows us the guns firing but not the bodies hitting the floor. She’s interested in who holds the power, not the spectacle of their violence.”
Interview with Jasmila Žbanić
In January 2021, Orla Smith interviewed Quo Vadis, Aida? writer-director Jasmila Žbanić about the challenges of getting the film made, her long and detailed rehearsal process, and why she wanted Aida to be a translator.
Here’s an excerpt of the interview, in which Žbanić talks about the journey to getting the film made:
“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.”
Interview with Jasna Đuričić
In April 2021, Orla Smith interviewed lead actress Jasna Đuričić about the elaborate rehearsal process that helped her craft her ferocious performance in Quo Vadis, Aida?.
Here’s an excerpt of the interview:
“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.”
Genocide on film: A podcast episode about Quo Vadis, Aida? and Our Lady of the Nile
To mark the North American release of Quo Vadis, Aida?, we gathered a panel to discuss the film in comaprison to another recent film about genocide, Atiq Rahimi’s Our Lady of the Nile.
This episode features Alex Heeney, Orla Smith, Brett Pardy, and special guest Andrew Kendall.