Movie Review: Quo Vadis, Aida?

Although pretty much everyone predicted that the Danish film, ANOTHER ROUND (DRUK), would win as the Best International Feature Film at this year’s Oscar awards, it did have some worthy competition. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s entry, QUO VADIS, AIDA?, which recalls events that took place in that country in 1995, is powerful reminder of what happens when the world collectively shrugs its shoulders to genocide.

Golden Bear winner, writer-director and co-producer Jasmila Žbanić (GRBAVICA), returns her attention and ours to the Bosnian War and the devastating effects it has on one family. QUO VADIS, AIDA? revolves around Aida Selmanagić (Jasna Đuričić), a former schoolteacher-turned-UN translator in Srebrenica. Due to a lack of international political consensus on how to stop all the ethnic fighting that is taking place in the wake of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, the UN is stymied in what it can do there. As a result, it neither demilitarizes the (Muslim) Bosniak Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ARBiH) within the town nor does it force the withdrawal of the (Christian) Bosnian Serb Army VRS from the surrounding areas. In 1995, with the ARBiH forces on the run, the VRS enters the town and starts killing people at random. Though the UN declares Srebrenica a “safe area” under its protection, that statement turns out to be hollow, forcing Srebrenica’s Muslims to flee en masse to the UN’s compound with not much more than the clothes on their backs. Unable to cope with the sudden influx of refugees, UN colonel Thom Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE) makes the decision to close the compound, stranding much of the town’s male population, including Aida’s husband and two adult sons, outside its fences. When VRS general Ratko Mladić arrives on the scene, he orders his forces to round up all the men who were unable to seek refuge inside the UN compound and ostensibly bus them to a safe area. With reports reaching the compound that the VRS is engaging in the mass execution of the Muslim men, Aida pulls out all the stops to try to save her family from certain death.

As much of an indictment of institutional incompetence as it is of collective indifference, QUO VADIS, AIDA? reminds audiences that genocide isn’t just something that happened during our grandparents’ time or in some tiny African country that few people could ever point out on a map. This happened 25 years ago. Đuričić delivers a devastating performance as a loving wife and mother who refuses to take “No” for an answer. (How was she not nominated for a Best Actress Oscar award?) Žbanić uses a lot of handheld camerawork to follow Aida as she franticly negotiates the roadblocks that Karremans and the other UN officers all too coldly put up in front of her. The effect puts the audience into Aida’s head and offers us a sense of the desperation and helplessness that she must be feeling as she searches for a way – any way – to keep her family safe.

Žbanić closes her film on a sober note. The war has ended and life has returned to Srebrenica but the casualties in this bitter fight count among both the dead and the living. Aida won’t ever forget but can she ever forgive?

QUO VADIS, AIDA? opens on Thursday (June 24) here in Hong Kong. It’s well worth watching!

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