Films about horrific historical events are difficult. The question of what not to show versus what you must show is always a hard one – and the want to present, and comment, without glorifying is always challenging. Quo vadis, Aida? focuses on the Bosnian genocide of 1995. It takes place during the events leading up to this atrocity, and is all the stronger for this. In no way is this an exploitative or inappropriate depiction of important history, this is a vital evocation of how history happens to people – a thing easy to forget.
This really is the strength of Quo vadis, Aida?, the film aligns you with the perspective of the civilians, eschewing wider context to get to the heart of the issue. This comes from the narrative positioning as we follow the titular Aida, played brilliantly by Jasna Djuricic, a local citizen who has been enlisted by the UN forces as a translator. This means that she exists in a liminal space, the conduit between two sides. This is a smart allegory for people stuck in the centre of a wider conflict and used as resources. Her struggle becomes our struggle and it is a much more effective and emotive watch than it would otherwise be. By focusing on history in this way, it brings to light the reality of history and makes it feel less distanced and academic. While others make decisions, the people suffer the consequences – victims of a struggle far outside of their control and influence.
Camera work conveys this nicely, a lot of the cinematography is hand held and ever moving. There is a claustrophobia and closeness that evokes the limited perspective that the film is built around evoking. However, we do have some wide shots. Interestingly, these wide shots are mostly of people or of the landscape – often of devestation. Intimate angles and closeness are used to show the specific human cost of conflict; long shots are used to show the scope of what is lost. The film never focuses in on suffering or pain, it is instead a portrait of struggle and then of loss.
The structure takes a before and after approach, not lingering on the event but showing what was there to then make it clear what was taken away. Most of the film focuses on Aida trying to save her husband and son, flexing her status as translator to try and get special treatment. It is a Sisyphean task and becomes emblematic of the wider struggle – the chance and randomness of it all, how suffering is persistently put upon everyday people. This light narrative focus conveys the necessary desperation and tension needed for the film to work. The stakes are clear but this narrative framework is also used as an illustration of powerlessness. Aida may be working for the UN but she is not of the UN, her status gives her no special treatment – and may actually inconvenience her in many ways. This is another brilliant way of showing how the victims of conflicts are usually those pushed down and othered by these wider processes and machinations.
The very best touch comes at the end, a poetic sequence where a repeated gesture says so much. It is at this point that I slightly wished the poetry existed throughout the film, as this simple visual metaphor speaks so clearly and evocatively – devastatingly so. However, poeticising only comes after tragedies and the film very much understands that. It is all raw reality, the type that we never think to really focus on, never mind imbue with art. And then it is all gone. And then the art comes. This shift in focus works as a deeply intelligent metaphor of its own, the focus on the everyday calling into question how we ignore; how we look away; how we view certain people as less important. And then we suddenly care when the bodies are displayed to us. This film asks the simple question, and the most important question, where was the attention when it was needed?