A gripping drama based on real events that occurred during the Serbian attack on Bosnia in 1995 brings home to us the nightmare of modern war.
The terror and helplessness of civilians caught in a genocidal war is a reality powerfully captured by Bosnian writer-director Jasmila Žbanić in her film Quo Vadis, Aida? “Quo vadis?” is a Latin phrase that became famous in Christian stories about persecution during the Roman Empire. It basically means “Where are you going?” and it was used as something God would say to a frightened believer. But in this case, the question has an urgently modern import, being posed to a woman named Aida, played by Jasna Đuričić, who faces the most catastrophic threat she could imagine.
Aida is a Bosnian teacher, who in 1995 works as a translator for UN forces in the town of Srebrenica, near the Serbian border. After three years of siege, the UN officers assure town officials that the Serbian army will suffer airstrikes if they dare to attack. But when Serbia advances on the city, their promises prove empty, and the population flees to the UN base nearby, which is manned by Dutch forces. They only let a few thousand people into the building, leaving thousands more stranded outside the fence in the heat with no food or water. While continuing to work as a translator between Bosnian civilians and the Dutch UN forces, Aida frantically seeks a way to get her husband and two adult sons out of danger. She knows what the UN officers won’t admit, that the promises of the Serbians, led by a war criminal, General Mladić, can’t be trusted.
Almost every moment in this movie is tense and gripping. The Serbs target men for executions because they suspect all Bosnian men of being fighters in anti-Serbian forces. When General Mladic wants to talk to the UN officers he also asks for some representatives of the people of Srebrenica, and when no one volunteers, Aida suggests her husband, who’s a high school principal, as a way of getting him inside the compound. Mladic promises that all the civilians will be transported safely to another town in buses, and the UN people agree. But Aida senses that’s not safe, so she hides her husband and sons in various places on the base in a difficult and dangerous effort at evasion.
The Serbians arrive at the compound and demand to be let in to check for weapons, and we witness their deplorable and abusive behavior. Žbanić expertly evokes the overwhelming fear of people who are basically at the mercy of their worst enemies. While watching this, I kept thinking of the mistreatment and atrocities we’re seeing now in Ukraine. The horrifying atmosphere of total war, which seems distant and abstract when we only hear about it, comes to life minute by minute in this film. The acting is amazing, making you forget that this is a movie and experience something close to the reality of state terrorism in a way that is impossible to forget.
The film also shows us the conflict eventually ending, and society returning to what appears to be a more normal condition. Yet there are always those who escape the consequences of their crimes, while the suffering and trauma of their victims remain. Quo Vadis, Aida? is a great and towering indictment of our continued acceptance of violence and war.