Film review: Quo Vadis Aida? –harrowing but tender- and ultimately inspirationalon the European Film Festival (South Africa) -October 14 -24, 2021

What: Quo Vadis Aida? [Where are you going, Aida?]

Director and writer: Jasmila Žbanić
Starring: Jasna Đuričić as Aida; Izudin Bajrović, Boris Isaković and others
Language: Bosnian, English, Serbian, Dutch, with English subtitles
Genre: Political drama/thriller
Running time 102 minutes  
Available to view in South Africa: European Film Festival (South Africa) -October 14 -24, 2021
Where: Tickets: No charge – tickets are free
Access: The online screening of films are geo-blocked for viewing in South Africa only      

Where is the humanity in policy making, deciding who lives or dies? How can we possibly navigate the personal when politics skews morality? Quo Vadis Aida? [Where are you going, Aida?] is a harrowing film; a brilliant film. Directed by Jasmila Žbanić, the film was nominated for best foreign feature film at the Oscars 2020 and was screened in the main competition section in 2020 at the Venice International Film Competition. I would have given it the Oscar. With a tightly scripted narrative and vivid cinematography, the film is a must see. Viewers in South Africa are fortunate to be able to watch the film when it screens from tomorrow, online, at the European Film Festival, South Africa – October 14 -24, 2021-at no charge. All eighteen films at the festival are free to watch.

I found Quo Vadis Aida? nauseating but tender- and ultimately inspirational.  This fictional film is set in Bosnia, July 1995 as we see the desperation of Aida, a former teacher, who is tasked to work as a translator for the United Nations. The Serbian army has taken over the town of Srebrenica. Aida’s family and thousands of others seek refuge in the UN encampment. Aida scurries around like a frantic rat in the so-called safe zone of the UN compound, translating; appeasing the increasingly desperate people. It is a race to survive. Aida tries to keep her own family – her sons- and husband safe. It is about getting on the right list – the list of life. Who decides on the left or right line?

 I happen to be re-reading my way through Nazi Holocaust/Genocide literature – involving people from multiple nationalities- trying to find ways of surviving – by appealing to those who could possibly provide them with a chance to survive – by stamping a visa or a pass to move through a camp. In World War II, the UN did not exist. It was officially established in October 1945. In the books I am reading, it is The Red Cross, consuls and embassies who blithely tell people like Aida, why they can’t put another person on a list. By doing so, they have to take someone else’s name off and what can she say to that? It is chilling and sad and brutal but it is the same-same and organisations like the UN – supposedly the peacemakers – often do little – or nothing – or the paper pushers claim to be going by the book – doing their jobs – following orders.

Aida tries to save and be saved. Her former students, taunt her. They are the hunters, the perpetrators.  “Good” people become “bad”. Others look away; avert their eyes at what is happening. In the end, the policy makers leave. The murderers are done – for now. The rubble remains from the genocide – physically and emotionally. Plot spoiler alert. Aida, with a steely determination, reclaims her old apartment and returns to her former vocation as a teacher; re-calibrating her life as best as she can. She smiles wistfully at the memory of how they once were; as a family.

When I read the synopsis for this film, I thought it sounded grim and would be grueling to sit through. It is not a nice film. It is a film which evokes the ugliness of war, terror, genocide on innocent people but under the direction of Jasmila Žbanić and with the achingly nuanced performance by Jasna Đuričić as Aida, the film is foregrounded in the personal. Within the terror and arbitrary politicking and what plays out in the UN compound- and beyond- Aida retains her humanity. Watch her as she works through her bafflement and despair. She is one woman against (mostly) alpha males in military fatigues – on multiple sides. Aida’s sense of hope and resilience – continuing to live and treasure her memories of her family – is what makes this film for me- so powerful and inspirational. Where is Aida going? Where to- from here? She keeps going; hoping, trying; living. We must keep going – even when the “where” is lost in translation – we somehow have to keep going.

Caught in the middle: Jasna Đuričić as Aida in Quo Vadis Aida? [Where are you going, Aida?] , directed by Jasmila Žbanić. Supplied images.