Aida (Jasna ÄuriÄiÄ) at the gate of the United Nations encampment in Srebrenica. Photo courtesy of Super LTD / New York Times
From 1992 to 1995, a war took place in the Balkans, in Bosnia herzegovina. It was part of the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991. Multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina was inhabited by Muslim Bosnians, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats. The main belligerents in the war were the Bosnian Serbs and Muslims, although there was fighting between the Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats at the start of the war.
All the ethnic forces involved committed atrocities, but it is the Bosnian Serbs, aided by the Serbian National Army, who have been most widely engaged in ethnic cleansing campaigns including the killing of civilians; grated; torture; destruction of civil, public and cultural property; looting; and the forced resettlement of civilian populations. The consummation of their murderous action was the murder of over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim boys and men (women and girls were allowed to live), in Srebrenica in July 1995. It was the worst act of mass murder in Europe since WWII, and it helped galvanize the West to push for a wartime ceasefire this year- the.
This is the historical context of Jasmila Å½baniÄ‘s “Quo Vadis, Aida?– the film presented by Bosnia and Herzegovina for this year’s Oscar for best international feature film. (Å½baniÄ grew up during the war years in besieged Sarajevo.)
The film begins low-key and slowly and tensely evolves into one final horror – the Srebrenica Massacre (which happily takes place off-screen).
The center of the film is Aida (Jasna ÄuriÄiÄ), a courageous, tough and motherly translator working at a United Nations base near Srebrenica. Aida is a teacher turned UN translator in the supposed safe zone. She sees firsthand the failure of unprepared and powerless Dutch peacebuilders to prevent what she sees as clearly inevitable. Aida tries to maintain an exterior calm while trying to save her main school husband and two sons by calling in the UN officers. They are doomed, because the UN forces are unable to cope with the power of the Bosnian Serbs, while being rigid in respecting the rules with regard to the Muslim victims.
Bosnian Serb forces were led by the insidious and murderous general Ratko MladiÄ, who pretends to engage in negotiations with UN troops, and is accompanied by a cameraman who publicizes his military exploits. Although he distributes chocolate and bread to Muslims inside the camp, he is utterly ruthless to them. (MladiÄ now faces a life sentence after being convicted of crimes against humanity.)
The film is apocalyptic, but without sensationalism. It is the reactions of Aida – the only character to have a real dimension in the film – that translates the catastrophic nature of what happened. There are a few brief scenes of other people trapped in Srebrenica, but they are peripheral. The participants in the massacre are Serbian neighbors and former students that Aida knew before the war. War is not a war between strangers, but takes place between people who sometimes know each other intimately.
Å½baniÄ describes his film as depicting “the courage, love and resilience” of a “woman caught in the male arena of war” and dedicates it to “the women of Srebrenica and their 8,372 sons, fathers, husbands , brothers, cousins, neighborsâ¦ “
It ends with a close-up of an indomitable Aida watching her elementary school students enthusiastically and animatedly play for their parents. The conclusion gives hope for a new generation, after seeing the ruined slaughterhouse that preceded it.