by Sophie Smars
Last Monday, Quo Vadis, Aida? was nominated for an Oscar for Best International Feature Film. The highly acclaimed movie directed by Jasmila Zbanik covers the events in July 1995 leading up to the Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian war, through the eyes of Aida Selmanagic (Jasna Duricic) a translator working for the UN. 8000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed during this massacre by the Bosnian Serb Army of Republic Srpska under the command of General Mladic, making it the largest genocide since the Holocaust.
It is alarming to see that these horrors could even occur so recently in our history and especially after the atrocities of the Second World War, but it is perhaps even more disturbing that this massacre was, and still is, a stain of failure on the international community’s hands. Indeed, before the massacre, the UN had declared a safe area protected by UN peacekeeping forces, and specifically the Dutch battalion independent unit, where thousands of Bosnian Muslim civilians took refuge. In the movie, we see the dire conditions of this safety base, where crowds of refugees sleep on the floor and do not have enough access to basic necessities such as toilets, food, water, and medical attention. Soon enough the base reaches its maximum capacity, and the gate is closed, leaving thousands of more civilians stuck outside and essentially unprotected. All of these people have entrusted their fates into the hands of UN forces, who feed them the reassuring idea that the UN is untouchable.
However, right from the start of the film we see hints of an impending catastrophe, with Colonel Karremans of the Dutch Battalion becoming increasingly frustrated and hopeless as he tries to reach higher-up UN officials to inform them on the worsening situation but is met with no response or solutions. At the time, it was thought that the international media and the UN Security Council were focused on events in Sarajevo and did not see the gravity of the situation of Srebrenica. In fact, most of the peacekeeping troops depicted guarding the base’s gates are young, skinny and unprepared men, highlighting the UN’s lack of taking the situation seriously.
As a translator for the UN but also a member of the Bosnian Muslim community, Aida is constantly torn between her duty to inform the public, and her well-aware conscience that she is telling them lies and making empty promises. We see her actions as one of a mother who is desperately trying to save her family (her husband and two sons) from this massacre as events escalate. Despite having a UN badge that gives her immunity from the incoming armed forces, this protection does not extend to her family.
In a Time interview with Angelina Jolie, Zbanic explains that this movie was very much inspired by the strength of the mothers she spoke with, who had come out of this genocide, having suffered horrors such as mass rape, and losing entire generations of fathers, husbands, and sons, yet still lived on to search for their bodily remains. Indeed, during a scene of negotiations between Mladic and the UN, Mladic says “you either survive or you disappear”. In the film’s heart-breaking final moments, we see Aida identifying the skeletal remains of her family members after the war is over, giving her and the spectator finally some closure. Women like Aida are the proof of survival that make sure the memory and legacy of those lost never disappears, despite a current political climate that still has difficulty coming to terms with the past. In fact, it was not until June 2004 that Serb officials finally acknowledged that their forces did carry out mass killing, and to this day they still refuse to recognise the massacre as a genocide. Suppression of the past is such a problem that survivors and families of victims today are even denied official approval for practices of commemoration that are essential to healing community trauma.
Aida’s closure is not yet a complete one, as it is subverted by the fact that in the post-war society, perpetrators still live freely among those who have suffered like her. At the end of the movie when Aida has returned to her old life as a schoolteacher after the war, we see the faces of parents watching the school play, and among them is the unforgettable face of one of the soldiers who took part in the brutalities. Despite high-ranking officers and generals being convicted and tried at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, many who were involved in the war crimes were let off easily. These final images of Bosnian Muslims and Serbs amongst each other in this school begs the question: what was all this suffering for?
Quo Vadis, Aida? Is a beautiful film that challenges the contemporary political issues of memory and responsibility concerning the Srebrenica genocide, while shedding light on the UN’s failures. As Zbanic reminds us in the Time interview, “the U.N. is a wonderful idea of an institution that unites us all (…) but [it] is still influenced by political interests that have nothing to do with human rights.”
Watch the trailer for Quo Vadis, Aida? Here.