▶︎ Quo Vadis, Aida? is available on Curzon Home Cinema.

Fiction films grasping for the horror of historic genocides have a few options, including the one of becoming transgressive themselves. Come and See (1985) and The Painted Bird (2019) followed different visual codes, but both gave their hideous cruelties the pummelling existential turmoil of a world spun off its axis, acts perpetrated by unknowable monstrous Others.

The genocide in Quo Vadis, Aida?, the 1995 killing of Bosniak Muslims in Srebrenica by Serbs under Ratko Mladic, is perpetrated not by ciphers, however, but by entirely knowable citizens in normal social structures – neighbour against neighbour, classmate against classmate. It’s incubated in a fog of modern bureaucracy, according to the principles of an organised society that only need shunting a short distance from their normal purpose to end up assisting in the slaughter of children and the bulldozing of their bodies into holes in the ground.

In Jasmila Zbanic’s film the killing only arrives towards the end, but its inevitability is assured from an early conversation between residents of Srebrenica and the Dutch UN commander promising an airstrike against the approaching Serbian militia. He may believe it will take place, although no one else around the table has much confidence (it later transpires that his UN chain of command has gone on vacation at a crucial moment).

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Quo Vadis, Aida? (2020)

Aida (Jasna Duricic), a local teacher working as an interpreter for the UN, spends the film acting as a conduit of communication between parties who aren’t really listening, while trying to protect her own family from the Serbian forces and from fate. She eventually offers to shoot her son in the foot if it will save him from being forced onto the wrong departing truck; he ends up being bused away by Mladic anyway, with inevitable results.

Although the film has moments of stillness and delicately skirts pathos – a baby is born within the UN compound under undesirable circumstances but Zbanic avoids piling on the sentiment – it becomes all about Aida in motion, rushing from office to office attempting to locate the logic in a situation that has little of it for her to work with. For much of the story the focus is on Aida’s face, behind which maternal courage is corralling an escalating fury.

Later Zbanic dwells symbolically on different faces: those of former neighbours, recently murderous antagonists, gathered after the conflict in a school watching their children play together. The image looks like one of reconciliation; but the concept is relative, if not irrelevant. By the miracle of photography the air in the room appears transparent, despite it clearly being filled with the spirits of 8,000 dead people.

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Originally published: 22 January 2021