April 4, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Jasmila Žbanic
Some language in Bosnian and Dutch with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in 1995 in Bosnia, the dramatic film “Quo Vadis, Aida?” features a white and Arabic cast of characters representing middle-class and working class Bosnians, military Serbs and Dutch military officials.
Culture Clash: A United Nations translator frantically tries to save her family during a Serbian military invasion of Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Culture Audience: “Quo Vadis, Aida?” will appeal primarily to people interested in seeing a dramatic yet realistic portrayal of a diplomat’s perspective of the Bosnian War.
The title of the heartwrenching dramatic film “Quo Vadis, Aida?” (from Bosnia and Herzegovina) translates to “Where are you going, “Aida?” It’s a reflection of the dilemmas faced by the story’s protagonist Aida Selmanagić (played by Jasna Đuričić), a United Nations (UN) translator who is torn between various different loyalties while trying to save her family during the Bosnian War. She has to make tough decisions and experience life-threatening situations. And like any war story, not everyone gets a happy ending.
Written and directed by Jasmila Žbanic, most of “Quo Vadis, Aida?” takes place mostly in July 1995, when the Serbian army took over the small town of Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Aida lives with her husband and two sons. Although she is a fictional character, her story could easily have happened to anyone under the same circumstances in real life. For most of the movie, Aida is caught in a terrible situation where she has to try to save her family from being sent to an area where they will experience almost certain death by Serbian military execution. Her UN privileges can only be used for herself and possibly only one other member of her family, so there’s a very real possibility that her family will be forced to split up.
The movie presents the horrors of war from an interior battlefield—the back offices where military and government officials make tense attempts to negotiate or issue ultimatums during a war. The negotiations sometimes fail, and the results are often genocide and other forms of destruction. It’s in one of these rooms that Aida is shown near the beginning of the movie, as there is a looming threat of a Serbian invasion in Srebrenica.
On one side of this stressful discussion are Bosnian officials who are unhappy with the increasing Serb military presence and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) not taking a stronger stand against the Serbs. On the other side are Dutch military officials who are in charge of a nearby UN refugee camp. Aida is in the room as a translator for both sides.
Leading the Dutch side is Colonel Thom Karremans (played by Johan Heldenbergh), while the Bosnian side is led by Srebrenica’s mayor (played by Ermin Bravo). Colonel Karremans says in a reassuring voice about the escalating Serbian threat, “We are doing everything we can. They have been issued formal ultimatums. They have until 6 p.m. to withdraw all of their heavy weapons. If they fail to comply, NATO will attack all their positions.”
The skeptical mayor replies, “You said that two and three days ago. You said that their tanks wouldn’t get closer, and yet they’re getting closer. The tanks are getting closer and closer by the hour.” Karremans remains firm and tells the mayor that the people of Srebrenica should feel safe in their homes and don’t need to go to a shelter. The mayor says to Karremans: “You will be accountable if the Serbs come to town.”
Karremans then responds, “I’m just the piano player,” as if the decision is out of his hands and he’s just relaying the message. The mayor takes offense at Karremans’ seeming detachment from the matter, and the mayor looks angry enough to start a big argument. Aida attempts to diffuse the situation. The meeting abruptly ends before the two leaders can get into a shouting match.
Aida lives in Srebenica with her husband Nihad Selmanagić (played by Izudin Bajrović) and their two sons: Hamdija Selmanagić (played by Boris Ler), who’s a musician in his early 20s, and Sejo Selmanagić (a played by Dino Bajrović), who is 17 years old. Nihad, who can speak German and is happily married to Aida, has a career background in education: He’s been a history teacher and a high-school principal Although it’s not really said out loud, it’s shown in the movie that Sejo is Aida’s favorite child. She sometimes jokes about what a heartthrob Sejo is to young ladies.
The people of Srebenica’s worst fears come true, and the Serbs invade. It happens so quickly that Nihad, Hamdija and Sejo only have time to grab some portable belongings and leave. They head to the UN refugee camp, which has been declared a neutral zone. But Aida’s husband and sons have to wait outside with a crowd of hundreds of people that soon turn into thousands.
Meanwhile, the refugee camp (which is in military-styled barracks) is already crowded. The Dutch military officials in charge have ordered that no one else is allowed inside the camp unless they have pre-approved clearance, which is usually limited to people who work in the refugee camp, such as Aida. She frantically leaves the building and searches for her family to see where they could be outside. It’s not an easy thing to do when widespread cell phone use didn’t exist back then.
To make matters more complicated, Aida is on duty and isn’t supposed to abandon her job. She asks a co-worker translator named Tarik (played by Alban Ukaj) to temporarily take over for her while she looks for her family outside. However, Aida is told that even if she finds them, her husband and sons won’t be allowed inside the camp because her husband and sons don’t have pre-approved UN clearance. There are multiple times in the movie where Aida has to fight to keep her family together during this chaos.
If Aida defies orders and gets fired, she will loses her UN privileges. These privileges are the best hope she has to try to keep her family safe. As the Serbs continue to escalate their military presence, there is debate among the officials in charge of the camp over whether or not to keep the refugees there or to evacuate them. One of the biggest issues is that there isn’t enough food, water or restroom facilities for the crowd outside the camp who want to be inside.
In addition to Karramens, three of his underling Dutch military officials have an influence on what can happen to Aida and her family: Lieutenant Rutten (played by Juda Goslinga), who is inclined to do whatever Karramens orders; Major Rob Franken (played by Raymond Thiry), who shows the most loyalty to UN policies that Karramens sometimes ignores; and Captain Mintjes (played by Teun Luijkx), who is the most sympathetic to Aida’s plight.
The power dynamics within the Dutch military faction at the refugee camp play out when Karramens asserts his authority during a disagreement within the faction. The UN’s policy for the refugee camp is that no war military personnel is allowed to enter the politically neutral camp. However, a Serbian military official named Joka (played by Emir Hadžihafizbegović) shows up with some troops and demands to inspect the camp to see if any of the refugees have weapons. Franken doesn’t want to let Joka into the camp, but Franken is overruled by Karramens.
At one point in the story, Aida (who’s one of the few people at the camp who can speak Bosnian, Dutch, English and Serbian) is called on by the Dutch officials to get citizen volunteers at the refugees who can be informal, non-political Bosnian ambassadors. The plan is for these civilians to meet with Serbian military leader General Ratko Mladić (played by Boris Isaković), to appeal to any humanity that he might have not to destroy Srebenica. Aida has also been tasked as a translator for this meeting.
Amid this horrifying experience of being under siege, there’s a moment in “Quo Vadis, Aida?” where Aida thinks back to a happier time before the war, when she entered a contest for the best hairstyle of 1991-1992. The contest is in a dance hall, which has a festive celebration during the event. Aida didn’t win the contest, but she and her husband Nihad are shown jubilantly dancing in a circle with a group of other people. Too often, war movies focus on pain and misery during the war, but this scene is a poignant reminder of the kind of tranquil life that Aida had that she might not be able to get back because of the war.
Đuričić’s performance as the loyalty-torn Aida is absolutely riveting in this story, which is essential in showing how the brutalities of war don’t care about UN protections and privileges. Žbanic’s writing and direction succeed in balancing this very intimate story about a specific family with an overview of the suffering of thousands of people who were affected by the Bosnian War. “Quo Vadis, Aida?” isn’t just about the war, because it’s also about the resilience of the human spirit despite tragic atrocities.
Super LTD released “Quo Vadis, Aida?” in select U.S. cinemas on March 5, 2021, and on VOD on March 15, 2021.