Scathingly literal in the way it depicts the organizational failure of well-intentioned multi-national peace efforts, Jasmila Zbanic’s slightly fictionalized take on the disastrous UN intervention in the mid-90s Bosnian conflict evinces that nauseous feeling of inevitable doom you get with certain horror movies, but without the attendant jolts and gross-outs. It’s a potboiler in that the heat is applied so gradually and steadily that by the time the pot is actually boiling you sit there in numb acceptance that this was going to happen all along. Zbanic’s means to this end is the title character played by Jasna Djuricic, an interpreter charged with being the linguistic medium between the Dutch UN forces trying to keep the fraught situation in Srbenica from turning deadly and the Serbian soldiers whose intentions they don’t dare second guess. At this point in 1995, Serbs had started murdering Bosnian civilians indiscriminately, acting out their age-old hatred of Muslims. The Bosnian residents of Srbenica, knowing the Serbs were on their way, flee to the safety of the makeshift UN base camp in the belief the international community will save them.
With no food or resources to take care of the townspeople who made it into the compound, and several hundred unable to gain entrance due to space limitations, the UN is forced to confront the arriving Serbian army, who insist they will not harm the Bosnians and that the UN should allow them to return to their homes. As the go-between in these negotiations, Aida understands where each side is coming from—the UN commander is restricted by his own agenda, which did not take into account all these refugees; while the Serbian leader is talking out of this side of his mouth—but as a professional can only translate what each one says, though she wants to tell the UN commander not to trust the Serbs.
Aida’s situation is complicated by the fact that her own family is on the other side of the fence, unable to get in, and when not helping with desperate conversations between the two sides that accomplish nothing, she is running around trying to gain favors from her UN supervisors to allow her husband and sons into the compound. The horror, as it stands, is purely bureaucratic in nature; which doesn’t make it any less horrifying. Aida’s mounting panic is checked by her understanding that only coolness appeals to officialdom when it is confronted by chaos. Meanwhile, Zbanic interrupts this frantic through-story with occasional snatches of stories from the crowd both within and without the compound, thus further intensifying the sense of hopelessness. Of course, anyone who knows the history of Srbenica will know what is going to take place, but even if you do, it doesn’t prepare you for it.
If anything, the almost dry storytelling tone sometimes defeats the dramatic effectiveness of the movie itself. The acting is uneven, and the script is laid out so matter-of-factly that certain plot points are glossed over. Though the UN is boxed in by its ineffective chain of command, which is unresponsive because top brass are on vacation that weekend (!), it’s not convincingly explained why they give up on the Bosnians so easily even though they must know what will happen to them when released into the Serbs’ care. But maybe it’s that point which is the most horrifying of all.
In Serbo-Croation, Bosnian, English, Dutch and Serbian. Opens Sept. 17 in Tokyo at Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264), Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).
Quo Vadis, Aida? home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2020 Deblokada/coop99 filmproduktion/Digital Cube/N279/Razor Film/ExtremeEmotions/Indie Prod/Tordenfilm/TRT/ZDF arte