And Who Shall Be Able to Stand?: Žbanić Returns to Srebrenica in Harrowing Account of Bosniak Genocide
If cinema has any responsibility as an artform, it’s to reflect not only the contemporary realities of the artists who created it, but also as a conduit for processing both the accomplishments and the travesties of the past. Seeing as how collectively we’ve been unable to eradicate the racism which allowed for centuries of slavery or the fascism which allowed for the horrors of the Holocaust, it’s no wonder a legion of other atrocities remain obscured, forgotten or neglected in cinematic form—and even easier, for audiences to become benumbed to the helplessness and despair when confronted by it.
Recuperation of humankind’s worst atrocities isn’t meant to entertain but serve as the closest possible way to experience and understand, both as a way to move forward in our communal efforts of empathy and most importantly, never forget. With a rising tide of nationalism engulfing the world, where racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia are sentiments used as platforms to power, the arrival of Jasmila Žbanić’s masterful Quo Vadis, Aïda? burns like a blazing hot iron—it is a cry of anguish in its masterful resurrection of the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. It was a cry initially diminished by the turmoil of propaganda, and it’s unfortunately arriving amidst global turbulences which will likely diminish its ability to be seen, so tired we may be of reliving horrors of the past. But Zbanic’s fifth film (her 2006 debut Grbavica: Land of My Dreams focused on a mother and daughter navigating the Bosnian War) feels agonizingly relevant, and graces us with a lead performance from Jasna Djuricic which compels us to witness the resilience of women during and after wartime.
Utilizing the experience of Aida (Djuricic), an English teacher working as a translator for the Dutch peacekeepers in a United Nations military base in Srebrenica in July of 1995, Zbanic paints a portrait of missed opportunity to avoid what ended up being the genocide of over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys, the most catastrophic genocide in Europe since WWII to this day. When the gates are closed to the shelter due to the enormous swell of civilians who travel to Srebrenica for safety, only one of Aida’s two sons make it inside the compound while her eldest child and husband are outside of the gates. Thanks to valiant efforts on her part with Colonel Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh) and Major Franken (Raymond Thiry), she finagles their entry to the compound by volunteering her husband as one of several speakers in a convoy to negotiate with Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic (Boris Isakovic) for the safe relocation of the Bosniak Muslims. But the negotiations end up being an obvious ploy to extricate all the refugees from the compound since the Dutch peacekeepers have not been authorized to use force against the Bosnian Serbs. As history would eventually dictate, the men and boys are separated from the women and young children, immediately gathered in a compound and executed, their corpses buried in mass graves. Years later, their women try to identify the bones while struggling to retain access to their property now inhabited by the Bosnian Serb population.
Spanning a few tense hours wherein propaganda maligned negotiations paired with impotence of the Dutch UN representatives give way to the inevitable massacre, Zbanic hews the dramatic tension of Aida’s struggle to save her husband and sons with a bone-chilling intensity. If Quo Vadis, Aida? is sans the gruesome power of Elem Klimov’s anti-war pinnacle Come and See (1985), it at least equals the harrowing experience thanks to Aida’s desperation, culminating in the kind of blunt scenario which rivals the horror of Sophie’s Choice (1982).
Noted actress Djuricic (who netted Best Actress in Locarno for White White World, a distinction she should have taken home for Zbanic’s film out of Venice), previously starred in the director’s 2013 feature For Those Who Can Tell No Tales. She’s the blazing focal point this time around, a ball of jangly desperation as she sprints to and fro, painfully aware of the UN saviors’ supreme limitations (Heldenbergh is effective as a Colonel who crumbles beneath the pressure of a scenario in which his hands have been tied, unable to use the force necessary to combat the Serbs) to the degree where it’s apparent allowing her family to depart means certain death.
Shot with sweaty intensity by Zbanic’s usual cinematographer Christine A. Meier, Quo Vadis, Aïda? (a Latin phrase which references Saint Peter’s question to the resurrected Jesus Christ, asking “Where are you marching?” or “Where are you going?,” in an exchange which lends him the strength to return to Rome where he’s eventually crucified), Zbanic not only pays homage by revisiting a modern historical horror in which its murderers are still living (Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic was finally sentenced to life imprisonment in 2017) but highlights the burden of women in wartime. If there’s an appropriate time to utilize adjectives such as ‘heartbreaking’ when describing the power of a cinematic achievement, it’s for achievements such as this film.
Reviewed virtually on September 14th at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. Contemporary World Cinema – 104 Mins