Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić’s Quo Vadis, Aida? is one of the most vital and deeply empathetic films you’ll see all year. It chronicles the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre through the eyes of a translator working for the United Nations, who witnesses the arrival of the Serbian army, lead by general Ratko Mladić, on a “safe haven” compound. The war criminal Mladić targeted Muslim Bosniaks, and the genocide claimed over 8000 men and children, who were supposed to be under the protection of the UN.
The film premiered in Competition at last year’s Venice Film Festival to wide acclaim, going on to become Bosnia and Herzegovina’s entry for this year’s Best International Feature Oscar, their first nomination since No Man’s Land won the Oscar in 2002.
We talked to Žbanić about the difficulties of making a film about an atrocity which is still denied by many to this day, the sins of institutional bodies that have historically failed to protect, and how the pandemic allowed Quo Vadis, Aida? to bypass censorship.
How do you approach making a film about a genocide that many still deny?
That was the fuel behind doing it. You feel the emotions and I personally know a lot of women who are still searching for their missing sons. After all this time, there are still over 1700 people in mass graves somewhere and nobody wants to say where they are hidden. There is still so much denial and many of the people responsible for the killings are still in positions of power. This whole situation made me want to make this film and try to find the universal in this story. We live in times where the right-wing is a threatening presence and people should know what happens if we are not careful.
This is a very personal project for you, because you lived in Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia…
Yes, I was 17 when the war started and Sarajevo was under the siege at the time. I don’t think many people know what happened in Bosnia and Srebrenica, a supposedly protected zone that the UN failed to protect. Quo Vadis, Aida? is the sharing of a shocking event that happened in modern-day Europe, an experience that isn’t necessarily in the European consciousness.
Was it a difficult film to get greenlit?
Yes, there were many challenges, starting with a lot of emotions that you have to overcome. And then there are financial issues, as Bosnia only makes about one film per year, and the average budget is quite low. We had a 9 European co-production, which is a lot of work. I am hugely grateful that European co-productions exist, and we had very brave co-producers. But when you are pitching a film like this one, it’s very hard, because people ask: “Who would watch a film about genocide?” Now that the film is made and people have responded to it positively, it shows that there are people who want to see films that deal with truthful human emotions and want to understand parts of history that are overlooked.
Am I right in saying that you couldn’t film in Srebrenica, as the mayor there still denies the genocide ever happened?
Yes, that’s the truth. He denies it ever happened and never comes to any commemorations that take place every year in July. There is a strong right-wing government that denies it to this day and a lot of organisations that openly promote the killing of Muslims. There was recently a confirmed verdict that gave a life sentence to General Mladić, but most of the media in the part of Bosnia where there is a Serbian majority didn’t recognise and respect this sentence. Luckily, there are thousands of documents now that serve as proof to whoever wants to open their eyes. For future generations, I think this decision was crucial and shows that we are not faking facts or denying things that really happened.
Did you experience any resistance or threats during the making of the film or in post-production?
My first film, Grbavica: The Land Of My Dreams, won the Golden Bear in 2006. When I was on stage, I publicly said that I was sad that I live in Europe where war criminals are free. That had a huge reaction in Serbia – I was on the cover page of every newspaper and it was not about the film. They were saying that I was against all Serbs. So I knew that if I started this film, there would be repercussions. That’s why we decided not to go public and to hide that we were shooting the film. No one gave any interviews, and we kept things as secret as possible so that it wouldn’t give politicians any ammunition. There were still reactions, with many people trying to stop the project. We got a lot of rejections from certain locations, and there were moments when we thought that we wouldn’t be able to get anything done. There were blockades, the ministry of defence refused to give us tanks and military equipment, for example. It was really painful, but on the other hand, there were so many people who wanted this film to happen, people who went above and beyond to work around these obstacles.
“Many films – even films directed by women – show war in an aestheticised or spectacular way, and this is not my experience.”
Like Grbavica: The Land Of My Dreams, Quo Vadis, Aida? is first and foremost a film about a mother. What was your inspiration for the character of Aida?
The women of Srebrenica are a huge inspiration, and their fight is ongoing. I also read the book Under The UN Flag by Hasan Nuhanović, who had a similar experience to Aida. He was working as a UN translator and had to convey to his family that they had to leave the base. It’s a tragic story. I developed the idea that the film should be about a woman who is trying to protect her family, because it gave me the possibility to show war from the female perspective. Many films – even films directed by women – show war in an aestheticised or spectacular way, and this is not my experience of war. I can’t find anything beautiful or spectacular about killing or any war scene. For me, war is the banality of evil – it’s inhuman and bureaucratised. Often, when I try to explain this, I refer to the scene where a woman is shot in the back while she was cooking lunch, and we see soldiers stealing stuff from her apartment. For me, this is war – it’s about stealing, not about heroes and democracy or flag waving.
The film also exposes failed institutions, as the UN bears a tremendous amount of guilt for what happened in Srebrenica. But despite this, Quo Vadis, Aida? doesn’t feel like it is anti-UN…
It was a process for me to understand what happened. As a Bosnian, I felt anger towards the UN and its behaviour. I felt betrayal, because Srebrenica was a protected zone and the UN had the mission to protect civilians. They had weapons and ammunition, and not a single shot was fired. They didn’t even try to protect the people. Then I went to Amsterdam and talked to many of the soldiers, many of which come to commemorate every summer. I realised that like everything in life, it’s not black and white. There are many of them who tried to help but were completely lost. Many of them were barely 18, and had no clue as to what was going on and what the war was about. The UN dumped them there with no knowledge. And there were commanders who could have changed the course of history if they had behaved differently. I learned to differentiate these things. Some soldiers accused others of collaborating and not everybody agreed with what was happening. That’s on the human level. On the institutional level, UN failed terribly and through my research, I discovered that there was a huge political influence from the US, UK, France… The UN, like many institutions, is fragile. I really want the UN to exist but it needs to be a strong organisation that is based on a premise of human rights and not dependent on political interests.
Was your decision to have the camera focus on the faces of individuals a way of showing the banality of evil you mention?
Exactly. We talked a lot about how to stay on a human level and how to portray war through human faces. War isn’t guns and bombs – it’s people. I had a lot of extras that were themselves survivors. One man was being taken away on a truck and he told me “That’s not the way they took us”. He told me the way they were ordered to line up, the way they were taken… There was also another scene where Serbian soldiers came in the base and yelled at people, and two women had a nervous breakdown because they were children when it happened, and the scene triggered them completely. They knew it was acting and that it was a film set, but they couldn’t stop crying. I really wanted to focus on the faces and to give a level of authenticity.
Don’t you think it’s dangerous to let these people relive their trauma?
We were very mindful. Because the genocide is still denied, so many survivors told me that they felt that by making the film, it was an act of explaining and giving dignity to their pain. I don’t want to romanticise it, but they told me it was part of a healing process. We had people thanking us and there was a lot of support on set. And now that the film has been received with such warmth, people feel like there is a certain respect given to them.
Jasna Đuričić, who plays Aida, is Serbian. It must not have been easy for her to take this role…
When I offered the script to Jasna, she was already aware of how hard it was for Mirjana Karanović, another Serbian actress who starred in Grbavica. They called her a traitor and there were petitions made so that Mirjana would never work again in Serbia. She went through hell. Jasna knew all about this and I knew that it was going to be a very difficult decision for her. But she immediately accepted. After the premiere in Venice, she got a lot of hate mail and faced some terrible behaviour from the media. In Venice, there was not a single Serbian journalist or critic, and the same day as the film premiered, they wrote that the film was against Serbia. The propaganda machine had made its opinion on the film before they had even seen it. They even invited two war criminals to talk about the film. The government media works this way – if you show Ratko Mladić as a criminal, then you must be saying that all Serbs are criminals. No! This is exactly what I didn’t want to do. This is not an anti-Serbian film because not all Serbs committed the crime. But we were aware of this mechanism on their part, and we tried to find a way to get people to see the film and reject it.
How did you go about achieving this?
Cinemas and distributors in Serbia and parts of Bosnia with Serbian majority didn’t want to show the film. So, we decided to go on a VoD platform, and – thanks to the pandemic – we were able to bypass censorship. People could then see with their eyes that the film is not against Serbs but tells true events. People starting writing us letters, sending us positive reactions, and this was very important for Jasna and her husband, Boris Isakovic, who plays general Mladić in the film. I really believe we made a crack in the wall of denial that is built by many politicians.
The film was also nominated for several awards, including the Oscar for Best International Feature. This recognition must have been wonderful in order to raise awareness and contribute to a wider audience getting to see the film without the intervention of those who would wish to block its distribution. But did it add any extra pressure?
When we were shortlisted and nominated for the Oscars, we were very grateful, especially because we didn’t have a US distributor at the time. It is a powerful institution that gives films so much light and attention. Requests for the film doubled, with so many more people seeing the film and writing about it. And that’s what a director wants – for their film to reach an audience and communicate with an audience. It didn’t add more pressure than already existed, as the film shows the truth about what happened and also shows on a wider level that all institutions and systems of protection can easily collapse. People who see the film will hopefully understand this and see that war is never the solution.