Jasmila Žbanić's 'Quo Vadis, Aida?' dramatises the events of the Srebrenica massacre, during which Serbian troops executed 8,000 Bosniak men and boys during July 1995. The film is based on 'Under the UN Flag', a book by Hasan Nuhanovic, a Bosniak survivor from Srebrenica who worked as a translator for the UN at the time.
After three and a half years under siege, the town of Srebrenica, close to the north-eastern Serbian border, was declared a UN safety zone in 1993 and put under the protection of a Dutch battalion working for the UN. The town has been deemed a "safe area," with assurances made that the Serbian forces will not enter it under fear of UN and NATO response. This proves to be a disastrous miscalculation when Serb soldiers led by General Ratko Mladić (Boris Isaković) begin amassing around it.
The film's protagonist, Aida (Jasna Đuričić), is a mother and schoolteacher who works with the United Nations as a translator. She can see what is coming but is unable to convince the bumbling military authorities, who can only bristle their moustaches and offer vague assurances regarding the Bosniak's safety.
Žbanić and cinematographer Christine A. Maier immediately capture the immense scale of the crisis as Aida attempts to find her family among a sea of milling human bodies surrounding the UN base. "Where should all these people go? Where?" Aida asks a hapless guard. It's a question she might very well be asking of herself (the film's title translates to 'Where are you going, Aida?').
For most of its 102 minutes, the film stays close to Đuričić as Aida is forced to use every resource at her disposal, acting in the interest of her family - her husband (Izudin Bajrović) and two adult sons (Boris Ler and Dino Bajrović). Times become desperate, to the extent that she offers to shoot her children in the feet so they can receive medical evacuation. Đuričić screams, swears, sobs, lies and bargains, but it's the way Aida silently processes each new and increasingly grim piece of information - her horribly prescient awareness - that makes the most impact.
"We stick pretty closely to the rules here", a senior official tells Aida, surreally, as the men he's been tasked with protecting are loaded into trucks by the Serbs and driven away for execution.
Meanwhile, the defenders are seen moving slowly and reacting passively to the aggressive Serbs. "We stick pretty closely to the rules here," a senior official tells Aida, surreally, as the men he's been tasked with protecting are loaded into trucks by the Serbs and driven away for execution. With agonising slowness, 'Quo Vadis, Aida?' builds up to a climax that hammers home the inescapable situation the Bosniaks found themselves in. Thankfully, all of the carnage occurs offscreen.
Writer/director Jasmila Žbanić laces the film with moments of humanity early on, and increasingly emphasises the completely dysfunctional command structure that led to so many deaths. "You are telling me the entire UN chain of command is vacationing? What should I do then?" Thomas Karremans, commander of the UN's Dutchbat, asks when he phones head office to ask why airstrikes were not issued for defence. The Bosniaks are portrayed as leaderless and totally vulnerable as their executioners draw closer and closer.
The reality of what happened in Srebrenica is far more terrifying than any film could represent, but 'Quo Vadis, Aida?' manages to capture the anxiety and fear - the nightmarish inevitability - of a horrific loss of life caused by human weakness.