Quo Vadis, Aida? has a hair-raising way of stopping the flow of events and then resuming. In between scenes as terrifying as a horror movie, writer-director Jasmila Zbanic pauses to capture the infinitesimal moments that represent life, beauty and normalcy – a look exchanged between a young man and a woman, shared cigarettes, a couple making out, clothes being washed.
The setting makes these fleeting moments of grace all the more precious. The movie explores the Srebrenica massacre that took place during the Bosnian War in 1995. Serbian forces overran the town, supposedly a safe zone under the protection of the United Nations, and slaughtered thousands of men and boys. In the movie, a few thousand of the Srebrenica’s Bosnian Muslims manage to find shelter in a UN base, while a vastly bigger crowd waits outside, hoping against hope.
In the crowd is the titular heroine’s husband and two sons. Aida (Jasna Duricic) is a translator for the Dutch unit in charge of the base. Moving smoothly between English, Bosnian and Serbian, Aida seeks to contribute to a fragile sense of order amidst escalating chaos.
Aida’s job places her in the unique spot of having more knowledge than the rest of the townspeople. As she carries messages between English-speaking Dutch soldiers, Bosnian negotiators and the Serbian militia, Aida must use every aspect of her official position to ensure safe passage for her family.
Jasmila Zbanic’s movie has a female director and cinematographer (Christine A Maier), a woman driving the plot, and a woman’s perspective of war. Never indulging in gratuitous violence and using indirect ways to convey the slaughter of the Bosnian men and the rape and sexual abuse of women and children, Zbanic displays tremendous control and empathy while recreating an event that took place 26 years ago.
The nerve-wracking narrative is steered by a stupendous Jasna Duricic, whose every nerve throbs with the knowledge that time might be running out for Aida’s family. Duricic’s heart-rending performance crystallises the despair of individuals caught in crossfire, whether in this particular war or anywhere.
Although the massacre is led by a general based on convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic, the overwhelmed and naive Dutch military leadership is equally to blame, the movie reveals. Unable – or unwilling – to protect the Bosnian Muslims who have sought its protection, the Dutch unit allows the Serbians to take over the base, leading to avoidable war crimes.
Always staying in the moment – except for a flashback that is slowed down to enhance the tragedy – Zbanic moves smoothly and grimly between disarray and deceptive calm. The suspense-laden and taut film resembles the Oscar-winning Son of Saul. Set in the Auschwitz concentration camp, Son of Saul revolves around the efforts of a Jewish prisoner to ensure a dignified burial for a boy he believes is his son.
Quo Vadis, Aida? too is destined for Oscar glory: it has been shortlisted in the Best International Feature Film category. The drama is being streamed in India on the Dharamshala International Film Festival website as part of a special Oscar edition. The mini-festival offers pay-per-view screenings, and will run until April 8.
The DIFF selection focuses on productions that have either been nominated for an Academy Award or submitted for consideration. The list includes Christos Nikou’s Apples (Greece), Filippo Meneghetti’s Two of Us (France), Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Atlantis (Ukraine) and Philippe Lacote’s Night of the Kings (Ivory Coast). American director Bryan Fogel’s The Dissident, an investigation into the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was submitted in the Documentary (Feature) category, but wasn’t nominated.