‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’ pushes to find the lost souls of a 1995 massacre

A confrontation scene from "Quo Vadis, Aida?"
A confrontation scene from “Quo Vadis, Aida?”
(Super LTD)

After five years of working to get the Bosnian historical drama “Quo Vadis, Aida?” to the screen — a movie that needed nine nations to cofinance it, that premiered at the Venice Film Festival in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic — writer and director Jasmila Žbanić saw her Oscar hopes pause with dramatic effect. When the nominations for the international film category for the 93rd Academy Awards were announced last week, the first four films were listed alphabetically.

And then came a moment of a silence that was so long the filmmaker thought her internet had frozen.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh, gosh, we are not there.’ And of course, when we were, it was incredible happiness,” Žbanić recalls. “I was on Zoom, meeting with a bunch of friends, and I just see them all crying. It was really, really great.”


“Quo Vadis, Aida?” chronicles a 1995 massacre during a Bosnian war barely remembered in America and most of Western Europe. A genocide in the town of Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed by the Bosnian Serb army of Republika Srpska and its general, Ratko Mladić. The film centers on a fictional translator (Jasna Đuričić) assisting United Nations peacekeeping forces during the conflict. As the Dutch U.N. forces succumb to Mladić’s antagonistic maneuvers, she finds herself scrambling to save her husband and sons from certain death.

“This morning I was visiting Mothers of Srebrenica, an association of women who lost their sons and husbands in Srebrenica, and they were saying that for them the film is also asking for justice, to know the truth of what happened there,” filmmaker Žbanić says. “Because when you talk to them, you are really moved, but not everybody has a chance to meet them. And in a way, this film is their voice.”

The Bosnian war was one of the aftershocks following the dismantling of the former Yugoslavia in 1991. One reason many in the West turned a blind eye to the war was the confusion in explaining the multiple warring factions in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Žbanić says that even before the Oscar recognition, she received positive support from all over her homeland. “People who are religious Muslims, they were calling me that they are praying for the film,” Žbanić says. “People who are religious Catholics, they were calling me to say they are praying for the film. It was like all four [religions] that live here, you know, Jewish, and Orthodox [Christians], all friends who are praying. It was really great that it was uniting people.”

Today, there are still politicians in neighboring Serbia who refuse to admit that the massacre depicted in the film took place. Žbanić says the right-wing media under government control in Serbia is trying to use the film as a way to prolong this conflict. But a silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic was that the film found distribution in Serbia on VOD.

“Though it hurts me as a director that people are watching it on laptops and not in cinema with perfect conditions, I was also happy because it jumped over the censorship, because we couldn’t get a distributor in Serbia,” Žbanić says. “So, suddenly, people had a chance to see the film that was not officially allowed to them. And we are receiving so many good reactions from professionals, from colleagues, from people who are writing Facebook statuses, [using] Twitter, trying to influence audiences in this other way. Because they feel that film is honest, you know, that it was not made to be propaganda. It was not made to make anybody feel guilty or to accuse somebody. It is focused on a human story. And they were able to follow this human story with emotions and understanding.”

Žbanić believes the film is changing the political landscape regarding the tragedy, but she expects certain political figures to continue to deny the truth over what occurred. “They will go on. Because for them, the perfect situation is conflict. That’s how they can build their careers,” she says.

During her screenwriting process, there were also voices who wanted Žbanić to make everything “perfect” from the victims’ side. The Dutch U.N. peacekeepers who found themselves at the mercy of Mladić’s forces have often been portrayed as completely at fault in Bosnian society. When Žbanić went to Amsterdam to talk to Dutch soldiers for her screenplay, she found herself coming to grips with her own prejudice over their actions.

“Of course, I’m not talking about commanders, because they had their duty, what they were supposed to do, and they are responsible,” Žbanić says. “But there were soldiers who were kids, 18 years old, who were sent for the first time abroad. They didn’t have a clue what was coming. The U.N. didn’t prepare them at all for what’s going to happen. And they didn’t have any power to change stuff. So, this is something that was hard. And there was some bad media coverage [saying], ‘She’s not showing that the Dutch were bad; they were really bad. And she’s kind of trying to balance it.’”

Although any filmmaker would have hopes of Oscar glory, Žbanić has other goals with the film’s newfound notoriety. Residents and, more specifically, women, of Srebrenica are still searching for more than 1,000 missing family members. There is still work to be done.

“This is something that is really so painful for women after 26 years; they still didn’t have a chance to find the bodies and bury their sons,” Žbanić says. “And I’m always thinking, ‘OK, maybe somebody will read the interview and, you know, influence people who know where these mass graves are.’ Maybe that will be helpful.”