On July 11, 1995, amidst the ever-growing turmoil in Bosnia, the Serbian army stormed the city of Srebrenica and forced thousands of citizens to seek shelter at the United Nations camp, hopeful that they could be kept safe. What followed was a horrific massacre of 8,372 people, mostly men and boys. This unconscionable chapter in that alarmingly recent genocide provides the backdrop for Jasmila Žbanić’s powerful and enveloping film, Quo Vadis, Aida? which has justly made the 2020 International Feature Film Oscar short list.
Writer-director Žbanić’s compelling narrative centers on a strong-willed UN translator, Aida (a truly remarkable Jasna Đuričić) who finds herself literally running around the camp doing her job while trying to save her family’s lives.
Born in Sarajevo, Žbanić literally lived through the conflict in her home country and has consistently made films that explores issues relating to Bosnia and Herzegovina, creating complex, nuanced characters in the process.
In 2006, Žbanić’s feature debut, Grbavica took home the Golden Bear at the 56th Berlin Film Festival as well as the AFI Fest Grand Jury Prize. On the Path, her second feature, premiered at the 2010 Berlinale and won numerous awards. Her other film credits include the award-winning For Those Who Can Tell No Tales, Love Island and her experimental doc, One Day in Sarajevo.
Quo Vadis, Aida? represents the third time Bosnia and Herzegovina has made the short list (No Man’s Land won in 2001) and the film has a great chance at a nomination.
Awards Daily had the pleasure of Zooming with Žbanić who spoke very passionately about her film.
–Please note, the interview contains spoilers.–
Awards Daily: This is a powerful film and so much of that comes from its specificity and how we are able to truly empathize with the protagonist, Aida, and take this harrowing journey with her. Was it always your intent to make her the focus?
Jasmila Žbanić: At the very beginning, when I started researching, I thought what is very interesting was the whole political situation around Srebrenica, who was calling New York, who was calling the UN, presidents—everybody–all politicians of the powerful countries were involved. And I thought this could make for a very interesting political thriller. But it influenced the lives of ordinary people who had no idea what was going on. Then I thought, if I described only political things, I would not be able to take (the audience) by the hand and put them there for 100 minutes so they feel and see (what it was like) to be dependent on the United Nations and be betrayed by them…And I decided to have somebody who is between those two worlds. She is Bosnian, so she has this destiny of Bosnians. But she translates for the UN, so she has much more information and understanding of what is going on in that sphere. So people can see the political (part) but most importantly the human (aspect). She’s just a mother who is rescuing her family.
AD: What made you want to take on this monumental story?
JZ: I was 17 when war started in Bosnia. I didn’t live in Srebrenica. Srebrenica is 2 ½ hours from Sarajevo. My city was under siege. We couldn’t go out of the city. We didn’t have electricity, food, gas—for four years. Srebrenica was something I heard of but I had my own problems living in Sarajevo. But (in) July of ’95, the Serbian army took this protected zone. According to United Nations Resolution 819, Srebrenica was a protected area and the UN was supposed to fight for it, even with weapons, but what happened was they just let it go. And final reports on Srebrenica said that not a single bullet was fired by the United Nations, though they had this mission.
I had beliefs that the United Nations were protecting human rights. But to have violence win? That moment was so hard for me. What do I believe in now? The world is collapsing…At that time we still didn’t know how many people got killed…Since then, you’d see another mass grave discovered, mothers recognizing bodies. And the truth is 1700 bodies have still not been found. After 25 years, they are still hidden. Because once bodies are found, then it’s a case for the courts. These criminals are hiding—moving mass graves to more and more hidden places so that they are never charged, that they are never on trial. So, it’s very present in our everyday lives. Although it happened 25 years ago, it feels like it was yesterday. So as somebody who lives here I was really interested in that, but I was afraid to go into this subject because a lot of witnesses are still alive. And of course everybody has their own version of how they survived it and what the film should look like. So, even if not everyone agreed with what I wanted to say, I thought I’d just jump into it. I knew it was a minefield…
AD: This was just 50 years after the Holocaust! And only 25 years ago. Will we ever learn from the horrors of history? Do you have some hope that your film might help in some way?
JZ: I hope that it will help us understand how fragile our institutions that are protecting us are. How fragile our democracy is. How we should take care of it. When I talk about the United Nations, I never think of it as a terrible institution. I’m always thinking our civilization made such a beautiful institution (where) all nations are united…But we have to find a way to not allow political interest to lead…I could also talk about Congress and the U.S. that was almost smashed just a month ago. We are living in very fragile moments where leaders could take us over the edge. And I think film could make people more sensitive to protecting our institutions and our democracy. That we see it’s not that big a step towards destruction. It’s very near and sudden. When I was 17 and war started—really, I woke up and it was war! And suddenly the whole world collapsed. It’s not something where you know it will happen, I can prepare myself for it.
AD: As you mentioned, here in the U.S. we just had a sense of that.
JZ: Yes. And people who are able to commit these crimes, they live among us. We learn in schools that war criminals are monsters, bad people. But the fact is, when war starts, even normal people go to the other side. And they live among us. This is not black and white. We should be careful how to deal with people. Also now discussing the right wing, it’s a question of how we learn to talk and communicate.
AD: You show that in the film. One of the most powerful moments for me is near the end where we see Aida teaching these children. And we notice that the parents of these children were the ones who perpetrated the crimes—the genocide! It’s astonishing.
JZ: It is the reality of Bosnia today. And I think it was the reality, also, in Germany after the second world war but we didn’t learn about it, we didn’t hear about it. We learned that war (ends) in a proper way. Perpetrators are in jail. And victims are recognized. But it is not like that. Many teachers in Germany were Nazis. They stayed in institutions. They stayed in powerful positions. And the reality in Bosnia is that they are still here. There are people who would love to turn everything, again, to the other side.
AD: Did you have difficulty getting the film made? Did anyone try to sway you in any way?
JZ: Bosnia is a country that doesn’t produce many films. We don’t have a big market. When you make a film about genocide, about such a hard subject, it’s not easy to get it financed. So we had to have nine European countries—film funds—join to make this film. It was a really big struggle. And then we had a problem in our country because in Srebrenica the politicians, who were promoting war values, are still denying that genocide happened. The mayor of Srebrenica is saying, ‘no, it never happened.’ He’s using false facts and (denying) the whole international truth…These guys were sentenced by an international tribunal with thousands of pages of documents and they’re saying, ‘no, no, it’s the rest of the world against us Serbs. It’s not true. We never did such a thing.’ So we couldn’t film there. We had to find other locations. There were many obstacles, like we couldn’t get tanks, military things…we (needed) to borrow from our army. And in the army, in the ministry, there are a lot of people that are hiding that genocide happened. And they said no to us…But we also had a lot of people who believed the film needed to be (made). A lot of people helped and are still helping…
AD: The political situation is so complex and involves the fall of the former Yugoslavia and there are so many facets. But we are in a worldwide situation right now, with social media, where everyone likes thing simplified. How do we combat that? How do we get the facts out there?
JZ: I think, as filmmakers, we need to offer more complicated narratives so that people learn from an early age that life is not simple. It’s not a McDonalds hamburger. It’s much more complicated. It’s never black and white. I think it’s our duty, as storytellers, to not make things simplified because that’s not truth. We are spreading lies. We need to tell the truth. And truth is ambivalence…It’s our duty to tell more complicated stories so that people learn to recognize if something is too simplistic, it’s not true.
AD:. Tell me about casting your lead actress, Jasna, who is magnificent.
JZ: Jasna Đuričić is a Serbian actress. She had a small role in my previous film. I’ve always followed her theatre performances, her films, and I really just adore her. Her husband, Boris Isaković plays General Mladić (in the film). They’re a very famous acting couple here. When I finished the script and we started casting my producer, Damir Ibrahimovich, and me immediately said it’s Jasna Đuričić! That’s it! She has this fire and fighter mode. Also, she’s very gentle. She can play two things at the same time, being very certain that the UN will protect them and at the same time, vibrating inside that things will not go the right way. It’s such a pleasure to work with Jasna because she’s curious and open and she does everything for the film.
AD: One of the stirring things about the film is how you focus and linger on the faces of the people–the crowd. Did you decide you wanted to do this early on?
JZ: My director taste is human faces. I am attached to a movie that has faces. A face has history, pain, love, many, many things. And we decided from the beginning that extras…would not be background. We treated them as actors. So I chose every photo of these extras and cast them. For me it was so important to have people with history. It was not (deliberate) but living in Bosnia it was also not a surprise, that many of these extras had history with this kind of trauma–not in Srebrenica but in other cities–being in concentration camps, being taken away from their homes.
We had a situation, in the film, when this Serbian soldier enters (the U.N. area) before delivering bread, with his gear and weapons. And we did a rehearsal. And he started yelling. And we had two women who had nervous breakdowns. They completely freaked out. We didn’t know what was going on! It was a trigger because they were little girls when they were put in a concentration camp with their family. And when they saw this guy—who is a very famous actor from Bosnia—they knew he was an actor, they knew they were in a film, but that trauma was harder than anything, they started crying they were taken away in an ambulance and given something to calm down.
I was directing a scene where these men were going into the truck, when they were taken from the site to be killed. And I explained to these guys how to do it. And there was one man who said, ‘this is not how they did it to us.’ And I was like, what? And he said, ‘I spent one year in a concentration camp and when we were moved from one location to the other, they told us, put your hands here, put your head down.’ And I’m like (she cups her face in her hands), ‘oh gosh, Oh God!” So I did what he told me to do.
AD: That’s extraordinary. This is the second film of yours to be submitted for the International Oscar and the first to make the short list. What would the nomination mean for the film?
JZ: I have to tell you something, I, now, don’t feel like this film is mine. I really think it belongs to people, especially to people in Bosnia because they are so thankful and proud that the film is shortlisted. They are celebrating as if we already won! It’s amazing, when I go to the supermarket everybody is like, “Jasmila!” At some moment, the film goes away from the author…It’s such great visibility…the whole world is watching the Oscars. And it means a lot to people. So, knowing this, I know that many people will see the film and that is my dream as a director. To get people to watch it.
AD: Reaching the rest of the world is important. Here we are very US-centric and Western-centric. Maybe if we weren’t so self-centered in the ‘90s, the US would have stepped in and those air strikes would have actually happened.
JZ: I think you are completely right, but I have to say there were many Americans who helped. I lived in Sarajevo during the siege and I know how much, especially journalists, were helping to get the story seen by others. Maybe in Sarajevo, we would have had the same destiny as Srebrenica, if it wasn’t for people like Christiane Amanpoor and Janine di Giovanni and others, amazing and brave people who reported about it. So you are right about being self-centered but on the other hand there were people who were really involved and were changing the course of the history. I think Clinton decided to interfere at the end of the war and stop the war in Bosnia thanks to people like Christiane Amanpoor and Janine di Giovanni and others.
AD: Putting that pressure on.
JZ: Yes. And Ron Haviv! He is a photographer from New York who was photographing the most important moments of our war. And I saw him in Congress (on January 6th) photographing those guys! These are people who are really exposing violence in a way that we can understand!
AD: My final question is about the title. I’m making an assumption that it’s biblical…?
JZ: When I was thinking about the film, I knew it would not (end) with the killings. It had to go on. And Aida’s return was something that was really important. Then I thought about these women–the real women –who are in organizations helping each other to survive this pain. They are still searching for bodies of their sons and husbands. They return to Srebrenica. They are always returning to this pain. ‘Quo Vadis’ has this biblical origin. But I am transferring what we believe saints did into what human beings are doing…They are doing incredible things. Aida and these women never asked for revenge. They never said anything bad. They were just seeking justice. And seeking peace. For me, they are saints.
Neon’s boutique label, Super Ltd, has just picked up the North American release rights to Quo Vadis, Aida?