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Jasmila Žbanić • Director of Quo Vadis, Aida?

“As human beings, we always have hope”


- We talked to Jasmila Žbanić, the director of Quo Vadis, Aida?, Bosnia and Herzegovina's Oscar submission, screening at Les Arcs

Jasmila Žbanić  • Director of Quo Vadis, Aida?
(© Deblokada/Imrana Kapetanovic)

Heading to the Les Arcs Film Festival's “Off Piste” edition after its world premiere at Venice, Quo Vadis, Aida? [+see also:
film review
interview: Jasmila Žbanić
film profile
shows a translator (Jasna Đuričić) navigating her way around the UN camp in Srebrenica in 1995. But when the Serbian Army takes over, thousands start looking for shelter – including her own family. We spoke to director Jasmila Žbanić about the film.

Cineuropa: When talking about historical events, it's hard to forget what came next [the Srebrenica massacre, which claimed the lives of 8,372 people]. But your film, just like Dunkirk [+see also:
film profile
, makes one feel like you are actually there, clueless about the future.
Jasmila Žbanić: I wanted people to feel how it was, to make them ask themselves: “What would I do?” To identify with Aida and go where she goes. I wanted the audience to be active, and with tragedies like the Holocaust, people know what happened, so you can go directly into the story. Here, outside of our society, they don't know what Srebrenica was about, exactly – I needed them to understand who’s who and what the premise is. Yes, people know the outcome, but this film is more about how it happened, and what dilemmas a mother can have in a situation like this.

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Did you want to show the conflict of someone who, as a translator, realises there is more to the official version of the story?
She is in between two worlds: she works for the UN, but she is part of the local community. There are privileges that come with her badge, but she is Bosnian, and her family shares the destiny of others. When I discovered all of these real-life stories, one was about a translator who had to translate, to his own family, that they had to leave the base – which meant they would be killed. I thought it was the most brutal thing, having to say to your own family: “You have to leave!” As if you were the one sentencing them. The other reason why I wanted Aida to be a translator was to have a woman who works as a character. She is doing everything she can, but at such moments, individual efforts are just a drop in the ocean.

We are always fed this narrative that there will be hope at the end.
As human beings, we always have hope, even in the most terrible situations. Which is why I didn't need to put it in the film as a mechanism – it's already in us. Even though people know how the story will end, they still hope. So many times when I read witnesses' statements, I was thinking: “Why couldn't you realise what was happening?” They couldn't, because people had hope that the UN would help, that surely it was impossible that they would be killed. Hope can save us, but sometimes it makes us blind.

Another thing we tend to do, as humans, is forget. Or at least try to “return to normal”.
For me, it wasn't so much about forgetting: I don't think anybody forgot. But life is such a waterfall, it has such power, that you can't stop it. Living in post-war Bosnia has many different facets: people responsible for the killings still hold positions of power, and neighbours who were a part of the killing machine pretend they never did anything. It's not like all criminals are in jail now and only good people are building the country. 1,700 bodies still haven't been found, and after 25 years, mothers are still searching so that they can bury their sons. There is still so much denial. Half of my country, with a Bosnian-Serb majority, rejects the film, claiming it's anti-Serbian. The actors who played Aida and general Ratko Mladić [Boris Isakovic], who are Serbian, are getting hate mail and being called traitors in the media. Obviously we haven't returned to normal, but what is “normal”?

Jasna Đuričić's performance is based on quick reactions and rapid responses. Did you rehearse it before?
Aida is always doing two things at once: she is determined, but there is always this suspicion looming over her head. She is brave but terribly scared. Optimistic, but at the same time thinking the worst. I was lucky that we had time to prepare, to go through the whole story on location. We didn’t have continuity when shooting, so this rehearsal helped the actors to memorise what the rhythm of a certain scene was, and what speed, energy and emotions were in their body.

Portrayals of those who failed to protect others can be sentimental, like having the captain on the Titanic asking the band to play one last time. But colonel Thom Karremans [the commander of the Dutchbat troops in Srebrenica] just closes the door, refusing to come out.
When you talk to Bosnians, most believe that the Dutch knew this would be the outcome and didn't show any empathy. But some of them come to Srebrenica every July for the anniversary, and when I went to the Netherlands, I noticed that these soldiers were still very traumatised by what happened. It's true that some were prejudiced against Bosnian Muslims, that they wanted to go home after being stuck there. But others were just 18 years old at the time. Their commanders, however, could have made a difference – it's a huge black mark on European and the UN’s history. What's hard for me is to think that if Srebrenica were to happen again, at this very moment, Europe or indeed the world wouldn't lift a finger again. How is that possible after we said, “Never again”?

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