Taking place in Bosnia & Herzegovina during the civil war of the 1990s Quo Vadis, Aida? is a startling and brutal look at an unfolding humanitarian crisis. At its centre is a story about family but this is by no means an easy watch. The film never shies away from its setting and is dedicated to not letting its story get in the way of, or detract from, its history. Honest and unflinching, and with some excellent direction, the film is like watching a perfectly orchestrated car crash in slow motion; even if the ending is inevitable, we can’t help but watch this chaos unfold.
Set in 1995, the film opens on a scene of negotiation between the Bosnian army and Dutch representatives to the UN. Aida (Jasna Djuricic) acts as translator going back and forth between both parties, trying to tamper the panic of the former and get as much as she can out of the latter. The Serbian army is very close to arriving and the citizens of this small town don’t know if they should stay or leave, the Dutch meanwhile are being incredibly cagey about releasing information. Amidst the chaos and panic of this meeting its fascinating watching Aida trying to be as clear and precise as she can with her translation. She herself is panicked and fearful, but not only must she translate words, she must also translate the urgency of her countrymen and the calm, but ambiguous diplomacy of the UN. From the beginning she is dragged in several different directions and it feels like she alone is responsible for balancing the differing feelings of everyone in the room.
This opening scene works as a microcosm for the rest of the film. From here the rest of the action takes place in a UN safe zone, stuffed to the rafters with refugees and many thousands more outside desperate to get in. Despite Aida receiving and relaying so much information there is the overwhelming sense that no one knows what’s going on. The UN are restricted from acting, banned from getting involved. The refugees have no idea what’s happening in their country or where they’ll be going next. The Serbian army is about to make an imminent arrival but no one is clear on what they want or what their intentions are. In the middle of all this Aida is desperately trying to find her husband and two sons. Writer/Director Jasmila Zbanic may well have delivered a masterpiece here. She manages to perfectly balance all of these disparate elements so that, despite all the confusion in the narrative, there is no confusion for the audience. Instead, they must sit transfixed and helpless as they watch humans scream, shout and panic as they try desperately to survive.
If you’re familiar with this period of history then Zbanic has structured the story so that the tension rises and continues to rise as it moves inevitably towards its conclusion. If you are not, however, then it feels like the film has hidden its final act very well and when it’s finally revealed it comes with a stomach-churning shock. The film is a very strong contender to take the Best International Feature Oscar and has also received, a very well deserved, BAFTA nomination for its direction. Djuricic also deserves recognition. For through her struggle to balance so many wants, fears and emotions we effectively see the collected trauma that thousands of men, women and children went through in 1990s Bosnia.
Drama, History | Bosnia, 2020 | 15 | Digital HD/VOD | Curzon Artificial Eye | Dir.Jasmila Zbanic | Boris Ler, Jasna Djuricic, Izudin Bajrovic, Dino Bajrovic