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- Quo Vadis, Aida?
- Written and directed by Jasmila Žbanić
- Starring Jasna Đuričić
- Classification N/A; 101 minutes
There is a common saying (often apocryphally attributed to Joseph Stalin) that tells us the death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of a million is a statistic. These notions of desensitization and ambivalence are deftly relayed in the harrowing Bosnian war drama Quo Vadis, Aida?, directed by Jasmila Žbanić. In centring the film on the plight of one character, the eponymous Aida (Jasna Đuričić), Žbanić expertly communicates the devastating realities of the Bosnian genocide and the trauma that reverberates decades later.
Set in 1995, in the town of Srebrenica, the film follows former schoolteacher turned translator Aida. Her job during the war is to relay information between her fellow Bosnians, UN officials and Serbian soldiers. While thousands of people seek refuge in a UN camp that can only hold a small portion of them, Aida does what she can to protect her husband and two sons.
The film’s style is understated. A muted and naturalistic palette captures the stark environment of the UN facility. In addition to serving the film’s realism, the subtlety here allows for Đuričić's rapturous performance to shine. With her eyes alone, Đuričić brilliantly conveys Aida’s heartbreak and outwardly attempts to maintain her composure. The handheld camerawork often tracks her in close proximity and with a fitting sense of urgency. As her steadfast disposition begins to crumble, we’re primed to empathize with her panic and helplessness.
Aida’s palpable desperation is the driving force of the film as Serbian forces encroach on the camp and threaten its inhabitants. An especially brutal moment occurs when Aida asks a doctor to smuggle her family to safety. She offers to shoot her sons in the feet so they have a reason to leave. But it’s futile, he tells her. Ambulances aren’t reaching hospitals. Opportunities for escape dwindle by the minute.
Although remaining focused on Aida’s experiences, Žbanić doesn’t lose sight of the bigger picture. One of the film’s most sobering sequences takes place early on when Aida looks for her family in the crowd. She stares out over a sea of people that stretches far into the distance. She sees thousands, all clamouring for safety and security after fleeing Srebrenica. Her own powerlessness makes this moment all the more torturous. Much like Aida, the audience can only stand by hopelessly.
The Bosnian war is not a conflict that most of us are used to seeing on screen. But Quo Vadis, Aida?’s unshakable qualities may change that. The film is nominated for Best International Feature Film at this year’s Academy Awards, which should rightfully place it on more viewers’ radars.
Refreshingly, this is a war drama that doesn’t hinge on indulgent or shameless violence. Instead, it focuses on the heart-wrenching devastation of more offhand cruelties. A sentiment repeated throughout the film is the excuse of following orders or adhering to rules. The UN guards do as they’re told and favour rigid regulations over empathy. While Aida tries to appeal to their humanity, the men around her who wield power make no effort to do the same.
Any mention of Srebrenica can invoke a strong response from those familiar with the Bosnian war. But for many, this film will shed light on a genocide that is not frequently discussed in the West. With the events still relatively fresh in the scope of world history, it’s commendable that Žbanić tackles this sensitive topic with a clear sense of purpose and an unflinching, but not exploitative, perspective. It’s all too common for history to remember victims as numbers, but Quo Vadis, Aida? counters this, offering instead an eye-opening and deeply felt personal portrait of tragedy.
Quo Vadis, Aida? is available on-demand, including the digital TIFF Lightbox, starting April 6
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.