by Alvin G. Burstein
In Michael Ignatieff’s 1993 book, Blood and Belonging, he explores a phenomenon described by Freud in his 1921 essay, Group Psychology, i.e., the capacity for closely related peoples to hate one another. Ignatieff chose to examine that notion by interviewing individuals in several contemporary warring groups, including those in the conflict-ridden Balkans after the collapse of soviet Yugoslavia.
Jasmila Zbanic provides a riveting representation of the havoc that the phenomenon wrought in her 2020 war film, Quo Vadis, Aida?, now available on Amazon Prime. A fictional account, it memorializes the tragedy that unfolded when, in 1995, an element of the Serb army stormed into the “safe haven” that the United Nations had established in Srebrenica, and carried out an ethnic “cleansing” of the largely Muslim refugees there. Over eight thousand men, women and children were killed over the next few days.
Zbanic focuses on Aida Selmangic, an erstwhile schoolteacher, working as an interpreter for the UN forces policing the supposed safe zone. The film opens on a meeting of the UN colonel, Karremans, with the mayor of the city. The UN commander is attempting to reassure the mayor that the UN and NATO are committed to ensuring the safe status of the city by instituting air strikes if the Serbian forces violate the UN designation of the city’s safe zone status. Thousands of refugees, including Aida’s husband and two sons, are pouring into Srebrenica and pleading for admission to the already overcrowded UN compound. Aida manages to locate her family in the crowd and uses her status to get them admitted into the facility, persuading Kerremans that her husband, multilingual and highly educated, would be useful as a negotiator with the leader of the Serb army forces, General Mladic.
As Mladic is leading his marauding forces through the city and toward the UN encampment, Kerremans tries vainly to have the UN/NATO forces initiate the promised airstrikes. His entreaties fall on deaf bureaucratic ears. Mladic meets with local negotiators, including Aida’s husband, and promises to help the refugees find a safe place elsewhere. The general sends a team to examine those in the UN encampment to make sure that none there are armed and, ultimately, sends buses to collect the refugees, separating the women and children from the men. Realizing that Mladic’s assurances are lies, Aida tries frantically to have her husband and son included with the UN staff evacuating the facility. The UN leaders refuse to help her, even when she falls on her knees to plead.
Her husband and sons are bundled onto a carrier with other men and herded into a building where they are machine-gunned.
Years later, after the war and the grisly genocide has run its course, Aida returns to Srebrenica and her role as a teacher. She returns to her old apartment to find it occupied by a young Serbian woman. Aida asks her if she found any of her pictures in the apartment and is given a packet of photos. She tells the new tenant that she intends to resume her residency.
Later, we see Aida walking through a room containing the remains of bodies found in mass graves. She is able to recognize what is left of her family and collapses in grief. Later still, we see her at her school teaching her class and watching her students—pre-teens—in a dramatic presentation in which they dance and alternately cover and expose their eyes. Seeing and not-seeing seems fraught with a meaning that the film’s audience must construe. What occurred to me was this: Some things are so overwhelming that they can only be glimpsed, not stared at. This is not an easy film to watch, but it is one that is important to see and to remember.