In one of the first scenes of Quo Vadis, Aida? (2020) — the latest film from Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić — former schoolteacher-turned-United Nations interpreter Aida sits at a table between the mayor of the Bosnian city of Srebrenica and three members of the United Nations Dutch peacekeeping battalion. The dialogue switches between English and Bosnian, but for a few moments no subtitles appear on the screen. Aida provides the only translation for the viewer, relaying to the mayor the UN’s assurance that the town will be safe from the encroaching Bosnian Serb army. Anyone with a knowledge of the events of Srebrenica knows that this promise was not kept, and the result was the death of over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys, killed by Bosnian Serb forces in mass executions in the surrounding fields and abandoned buildings. Žbanić’s film is an account of those few days in July of 1995 through the eyes of one fictional historical actor as she tries desperately to keep her husband and two teenage sons safe during the great tumult of the war. 

As in the opening scene, Aida is perpetually being pulled at from all sides. Friends, neighbors, and terrified strangers grasp at her as she passes, hoping she can make sense of the chaos. She rushes from the medical unit, where she’s needed as a translator, and the building’s entrance, trying to locate her family among the crowd of thousands who didn’t make it inside the old battery factory that served as the UN peacekeeping headquarters. Aida finds herself, as interpreters often do, stuck in the middle of the action, moving between diplomatic platitudes from UN officials, and egregious lies from Bosnian Serb military generals, before — with great hesitation — speaking to crowds of people unknowingly being led to their deaths. 

UN officials appear confounded by Aida’s inability to maintain the neutral role of translator and to proceed with cold professionalism in her duties. Even among the medical staff who work alongside her in the facility and the UN troops who she has come to befriend, Aida is alone in her singular focus: protecting her husband and sons. With neither malice nor contempt, she brushes off the pleas of those around her. “They won’t let us use the toilets,” an elderly woman pleads; “I’m just an interpreter,” answers Aida. Through quick thinking, Aida manages to bring her husband, Nihad, and her sons Sejo and Hamdija inside the relative safety of the headquarters, and, that night, she stays with them, sleeping on the floor of the factory, sharing a cigarette, and gathering her strength. In a rare moment of levity, the family plans the celebrations they’ll have when the war ends. 

“When this is over, we’ll celebrate everyday. I’ll throw a huge party. We’ll grill seven lambs, have a marquee, music…” says Nihad. Notably, the subtitle translations provided in this scene, as with most films, differs slightly from the actual dialogue. The meaning is close enough for English speakers to follow along, while Bosnian speakers can still appreciate the original, but those bilingual in both languages are best positioned to extract as much meaning as possible from each word.  

The slipperiness of language comes up again and again in the film. We watch as confident assurances turn out to be null and void and bargaining table deals are revealed to be barely concealed lies. Language in the film is always frustrated, words come out strained and their meaning is twisted. As the gap between words and reality grows over the course of the film we see the impossibility of communicating meaning during war and realize that Aida’s position is a hopeless one. 

In a later scene, General Ratko Mladić — later to be sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity and genocide — requests his own translators at a meeting with UN officials, and Aida is not present. The essential differences in communication between the Serb and Dutch sides become apparent at the meeting, with the Dutch Battalion taking words quite literally, as they do throughout with their rules and protocols (to Aida’s great frustration). By contrast, the Serb generals use words as any genocidal military power would, their meaning emptied of its contents, using a mix of niceties and intimidation to manipulate and cajole their enemies. The viewer is left to wonder if Aida had been present at the negotiations, would Mladic’s comments have been interpreted with the same credulity by the Dutch?

But Aida is a fictional character, and the film is not interested in reviewing counterfactuals, it remains firmly rooted in portraying the tragic reality of Srebrenica’s history. The film — now available for streaming on Hulu and other platforms — has received widespread critical acclaim and garnered an Oscar nomination, and if selected, would only be the second Bosnian film ever to win the award (the first being director Danis Tanović’s No Man’s Land, another film set during the war, which won in its category in 2001). Regardless of the awards results, Žbanić succeeds in another sense, bringing focus and discussion to a too-often forgotten chapter in the history of Europe and a source of continued pain in the region to this day. 

Communicating this history — making the countless stories understandable to new audiences — is a tall order, but Žbanić is up to the task. The film succeeds at immersing the viewer in an atmosphere of chaos and creeping terror, in which the confusion, weariness, and pain of its characters is immediately felt. One night, as Aida sleeps on the floor of the crowded factory building, a man is sedated by medical personnel after he begins yelling that they’ll all soon be killed in gas chambers. Another night, a young mother in a headscarf calls for a translator (even before she calls for a doctor) to report that her water has broken. The film’s climax, though known to us already through history, nonetheless lands like a grenade in the heart of the viewer. In this sense, the film’s greatest act of translation is in communicating the not-too-distant past to a present day audience.

Even with an Academy Award in view, Žbanić remains focused on local audiences, with hopes of healing the longstanding divisions that persist in the region. Žbanić’s choice to cast across ethnic lines (the lead actor, Jasna Đuričić, who gives a ferocious performance as Aida, is Serbian) suggests a commitment to going beyond ethnic essentialism, a significant choice in a country where so much is segregated along ethnic lines, from schools to state governments. “I want the film to be used to help bring understanding between people. We can’t deny the facts and we can’t lie about it,” Žbanić told The Hollywood Reporter. “Let’s look into each other’s eyes and let’s go on.”

This last point also hints at one of Žbanić’s most powerful filmmaking techniques: a series of shots throughout the film where the characters stare directly at the camera, unflinchingly meeting the eye of the viewer. In one memorable flashback scene, the same characters are shown dancing at a festive gathering during better times. In these moments of eye contact, no language at all is needed, and with the fourth wall partially broken, the divisions between past and present, real and unreal, are temporarily blurred, creating a moving and unsettling experience.

By the end of the film, the title phrase “Quo Vadis?” begins to acquire a clearer meaning. The phrase is neither Bosnian, nor Dutch, nor English, but Latin, most often associated with the Biblical story of the Apostle Peter, who Jesus meets on the road outside of Rome. It translates to “where are you going?” in English, or “whither goest thou” in earlier translations. The phrase has a special resonance in the context of the film, where those pushed from their homes — their families enduring deaths and untold tragedies — are still wondering where they can turn. 

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Sejla Rizvic is a freelance writer living in New York.