Tuesday, 1 March 2022

Quo Vadis, Aida? (2022) - Movie Review

Might want to have a stiff drink on hand for this one, because this is going to be a difficult film to write about, much less read about. This is a Bosnian film (another first for this blog’s coverage of international cinema) set during the Srebrenica massacre, which involved the slaughter of over 8000 Bosniak Muslims at the hands of the Army of Republika Srpska. And unlike more recent films like Beanpole or Hive (which also looked at Serbia’s history of war crimes), the story isn’t being told in retrospect. Instead, it is told from the point-of-view of the titular Aida (Jasna Ðuričić), a teacher who also works as an interpreter for the United Nations, who finds herself in the middle of the events that would lead to genocide.

There’s a degree of bureaucratic surrealism in how events play out, showing the UN peacekeepers (primarily led by the Dutch colonel Thom Karremans, played by Johan Heldenbergh) dealing in regulations and the rule of law in their dealings with the Serbian ethno-nationalists, but in that lies the film’s most horrifying effects. We follow every step of the process, from the evacuation of Srebrenica, to the arrival of General Ratko Mladić (Boris Isaković) with his handing out of bread and pop, to the separation of the men from the women and children onto different buses, to… well, the firing line. The mood is fucking devastating, but there’s an even more crushing normalcy to it all. Life continues around the margins, while one of the worst acts a human being is capable of is also taking place.

As narrative, it fits in with what Holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt described as the ‘banality of evil’, where horrible things occur not because of truly evil people, but because everyone carried on with it as if it were business as usual. “We’re just doing our jobs”, basically. And that’s the tone taken with the depiction of the UN’s involvement in all this, shown to be acting either out of fear of retaliation if they went against Mladič’s orders, or just absolving themselves of any responsibility because, hey, it’s not as if they could do anything to stop this, so it’s best not to rock the boat too much. Complacency as a means for the worst to take place; it’s the root of pretty much every instance of genocide in human history.

The film as a whole has a historical perspective in its depiction of these events, showing Aida’s involvement in reiterating the orders of the men around her with a fixed air of inevitability. It’s shown with the full acknowledgement that the worst will happen, as it already has, and try as Aida might to get some of these people out of the firing line, it won’t be enough to change things. But unlike those around her, who are entirely resigned to that fact, she refuses to let that be an excuse for her not to try at all. To idly sit on the sidelines, certain defeat or no certain defeat, is to relinquish the freedom of will and voice that makes us human. It highlights Aida as someone for whom family means everything, bringing a profound level of feminine strength to the proceedings. Which itself is a vital part of the larger puzzle, as the specific targeting of the men and not the women and children has historically been used as an argument for why this isn’t ‘technically’ genocide. Anyone else feel the urge to violently throw up at this semantics bullshit, or is it just me?

The story presented here ends on a note of soul-crushing quiet, as we see those left to pick up the pieces after this mass slaughter. But out of a need to not submit to the idea that such evil goes unpunished, I will bring up something that wasn’t shown in the film proper (or, as I would’ve expected, in the text-on-black-background epilogue that is a staple of these kinds of films). After close to eleven years of evading an international arrest warrant, Ratko Mladić was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2017 for war crimes and one of two counts of genocide. While others might argue that such a sentence likely won’t last long for a man in his 70s, I’m mentioning this here because the mindset that kept that manhunt going is the same one that makes this film as vital as it is: We mustn’t forget that this shit happened, and we must hold the bastards accountable for it.

Jasmila Žbanić’s direction and script present this tragedy not as the result of larger-than-life monsters, but of ordinary people who stood by and let it happen, which brings it to a horrifyingly mundane level that makes just how tragic the events are sink in even deeper. I left the cinema feeling a distinct blend of existential dread and on-the-verge-of-screaming rage at the thought that human beings are capable of such things… but it’s in that anger that I find some small amount of comfort, as it means that I haven’t yet reached the point where such atrocity is ‘normal’.

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