Quo Vadis, Aida? (5 stars)

Quo Vadis, Aida?

Director Jasmila Žbanić and star Jasna Ɖjuričić deliver an unforgettable take on the Bosnian War

The matriarch of a family fights for the lives of her loved ones in this gripping and impactful look at the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. Beautifully directed by Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Žbanić (2006 Berlinale winner Grbavica), it features an absolutely storming performance from Jasna Ɖjuričić in the title role and excruciatingly illuminates a desperate plight.

Although set in the midst of a horrifying historical episode, the film focuses on Ɖjuričić's fictional schoolteacher and UN translator Aida Selmanagic (a character loosely inspired by Hasan Nuhanović and his experiences), who forms a bridge between the people of her town and those assigned to protect them. It's a smart strategy, the true extent of the horrors which unfolded is impossible to capture on screen, and with events taking place in recent memory it ensures no-one's personal tragedy is misrepresented, while allowing us access to a broad spread of the story.

When the Bosnian Serb army rolls into their town, many of the residents of Srebrenica hole up in a nearby UN base, though thousands more are stranded outside when the gates are closed. After declaring the town a 'safe zone' and threatening airstrikes, the UN have now gone suspiciously silent and the Dutchbat peacekeepers on the ground – commanded by Johan Heldenbergh's Colonel Karremans – fail to stand up to the invading forces, who are led by puffed up general, Ratko Mladić (Boris Isaković). Mladić's propaganda videos, speeches and supposed acts of generosity paint him as a reasonable man, even as he's terrifying people and tearing up the town.

Our protagonist Aida, meanwhile, has been providing invaluable translations for the UN soldiers and medics and her youngest son Sejo (Dino Bajrović) has also managed to get into the base, but her frightened older son Hamdija (Boris Ler) and husband Nihad (Izudin Bajrović) languish perilously outside the gate. Aida finds a risky way to get them in when she volunteers her former headmaster husband for negotiations with Mladić, much to his disgruntlement, and there are much greater dangers to come.

By placing you in the shoes of this heroic older woman – always sizing up the situation, thinking on her feet and rushing here, there and everywhere, whilst maintaining her professionalism – Žbanić gives us an unusual perspective on war and captures a strong sense of the mounting danger and what's at stake. Her film is completely compelling in its life-or-death decisions and moral quandaries, painting an abysmal picture of the UN's actions and inactions, as well as the brutality of the Bosnian Serb forces themselves.

For much of its economical duration, Žbanić maintains extraordinary tension and a race-against-the-clock pace but her film slows down during key moments to reflect on the terror and loss. By combining smartly incorporated storytelling devices with powerful, real-life events, its director has created something astonishing here. Aided immeasurably by her formidable leading lady and excellent DP Christine A Maier, Žbanić shows herself as a shrewd, compassionate and genuinely outstanding filmmaker, who really knows the value of the human face.

Available to watch on Curzon Home Cinema from Fri 22 Jan.

Quo vadis, Aida?

  • 5 stars
  • 2020
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina / Romania / Austria / Netherlands / Germany / Poland / France / Norway / Turkey
  • 1h 41min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Jasmila Žbanić
  • Cast: Jasna Đuričić, Izudin Bajrović, Boris Isaković, Johan Heldenbergh, Raymond Thiry, Emir Hadžihafizbegović, Edita Malovčić

Aida is a UN translator in the small mountain town of Srebrenica.