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Quo Vadis, Aida?: a very timely journey to the Oscars

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Jasmila Zbanic’s movie reconstructs the Srebrenica genocide, where over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces. With Biden’s election, the movie nomination comes at a perfect timing

A Bosnian Muslim woman cries near a new open grave with the coffin of her relative, which was prepared for a mass burial at the Memorial Center in Potocari, near Srebrenica July 10, 2012. The bodies of 520 recently identified victims of the Srebrenica massacre will be buried on July 11, the anniversary of the massacre when Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Ratko Mladic slaughtered 8,000 Muslim men and boys and buried them in mass graves, in Europe’s worst massacre since World War Two. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Next month, Quo Vadis, Aida? could become the second movie in the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s submissions to the Oscars to win the Award for Best International Feature Film. The first one was Danis Tanović’s No Man’s Land, which won in 2001.

Jasmila Zbanić’s Quo Vadis, Aida? had its world premiere at the 77th annual Venice International Film Festival in September 2020, just a couple of days after the date in which the first fighter planes of joint UN-NATO Operation Deliberate Force left for Bosnia from Aviano, slightly north of Venice, 25 years before. The aerial bombing campaign against Bosnian Serb military targets was launched shortly after the Markale massacre and the Srebrenica genocide, the subject of Zbanić’s film. Despite the popularity of the film, when talking about the killing of over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys in the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica at the hands of the Bosnian Serb forces, many, especially in the region, still refuse to use the term “genocide.”

“The road to making the movie was extremely long,” said the main producer of Quo Vadis, Aida?, Damir Ibrahimović. “We sometimes felt like it was mission impossible. In the end we managed to form an international co-production that included producers from nine different European countries,” he clarified.

The current geopolitical context

The current political scene in the US and in Bosnia and Herzegovina adds contextual value to the powerful movie, making the picture’s run for the Oscars all the more engaging to watch as it unfolds.

“With Biden’s election as president, the movie nomination comes at a perfect timing”, said Said Gusic, member of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian American Cultural Association. Gusic added that Biden is considered a friend of Bosnia. As Senator, Joe Biden supported lifting the arms embargo imposed on the former territories of Yugoslavia during the war, and advocated for U.S. intervention to stop the violence during the Clinton administration.

This past October, Dr. Michael Carpenter foreign policy advisor to then presidential candidate Biden from his time as VP, published a document entitled “Biden’s Vision for America’s Relationship with Bosnia and Herzegovina”. This document presented the now president’s goal to “convene our European Union partners and NATO allies to jointly develop a strategy for anchoring the Western Balkans in Euro-Atlantic institutions,” in the wake of the Trump administration’s disruption of the historical U.S.-EU cooperation in the Western Balkans. On the day of Biden’s electoral victory a picture of him and Alija Izetbegović, former Bosnian president during and after the war, was projected onto the facade of the Sarajevo City Hall, demonstrating not only BiH’s support for Biden, but also its hopes of what his administration will achieve in the region.

Gusic, however, also warned against over-reliance on the U.S. “We cannot just rely on President Biden and his team that he already formed, to start talking about changing the Dayton Agreement, restructuring the government and getting rid of the corrupt politicians, that must  come from our side,” he said. While general elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina are not until next year, local elections that were held this past November saw important gains for opposition parties and the consequent weakening of the three main ethnic parties in major cities and municipalities.

The nomination to the Oscars

Though the hope for EU integration and the promise of U.S. support make for a politically charged context for the movie’s nomination to the Academy Awards, one element that some believe the movie can affect is the established trend of genocide denial in the region. “The significance of the nomination is absolutely monumental,” said Albinko Hasic, U.S. – based founder of BosnianHistory.com, a site that aims to to highlight BiH’s cultural and historical treasures and to educate people about the country, particularly young diaspora Bosnians. On February 27th, the website’s instagram account which has 37,000 followers, shared a post about Zbanić’s movie’s shortlisting for the Oscars.

It tagged Netflix’s official account and requested that the movie be streamed on the platform. Many followed the page’s lead. “This film has the opportunity to cement the atrocities of the Bosnian genocide in public consciousness and memory. The victims and their families are essentially re-living the crimes against them if denial continues to thrive and to stand unopposed,” said Hasic. Ibrahimović also stressed this point, stating that “The film can be one of the elements that can help finally start a more open dialogue in the region and further, about everything that happened here, not trying to justify and hide any sort of war crimes, negate genocide or glorify war criminals, which is still a consistent trend.”

Zbanić, who founded Deblokada, her own production company in 1997 with Ibrahimović,  and whose 2006 film Grbavica, won the Golden Bear, is “one of the most central figures in a group of emerging women filmmakers from the region and Bosnia in particular,” said Dijana Jelača, programming director of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Film Festival in New York City, and faculty member at the Film Department at Brooklyn College. Jelača underlined that “Somehow, women’s experiences in war films, not only former Yugoslavia war films, have always been typically put in a secondary location, as sort of afterthoughts.” Zbanić’s Quo Vadis, Aida?, counters this trend, placing the character of Aida Selmanagić, played by Serbian actress Jasna Đuričić, at the center of the narrative, and in between two realities: the international community, and war torn Bosnia.

A European integration

The slowly shifting political scene in Bosnia, Biden’s track record in the Balkans and the path towards European Integration of North Macedonia, Albania, Serbia and Montenegro, once again turn the international community’s gaze on the Balkans. With the Academy Awards inching closer and closer, it is important to think about the fact that a potential victory could go a long way towards countering the genocide denial that starts from the region, with individuals like the current mayor of Srebrenica, Mladen Grujičić, and ripples internationally, with well-known figures like Nobel Prize winner Peter Handke being accused of questioning the events of the Balkan Wars.

Ibrahimović pins hope for the future on young audiences watching the movie. “Young people could interpret it as a call for a new, better age, so that no one else has to live through anything similar ever again,” he said, adding that the movie can be a medium through which “Newer generations can free themselves of the burden that comes with people asking them to identify with these events, or feel guilty for something they had no part in.”

Quo Vadis,” a Latin phrase that translates to “Where are you going?” is a biblical reference that creates a parallel between Aida returning to Srebrenica years after the genocide and the apostle Peter marching back to Rome and towards certain death following an encounter with Jesus as he attempted to flee. “We hope it will lead to a change, that it will create an assumption that the UN can be transformed, prevent things like this, and that all of that helps lead to finding over 1,000 bodies of murdered citizens of Srebrenica… which their mothers, daughters, sons and families are still searching for,” said Ibrahimović.

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