So much of the film Quo Vadis, Aida? is focused on faces. It opens in the Bosnian town of Srebenica in 1995, as we pan across a number of men sitting on couches. If we know anything about the Bosnian genocide—and we darn well better—we know these are the faces of men who will probably be dead soon.
Before long, we see the face of Aida, a local translator for the U.N., and it’s with her that we spend most of the movie, as she engages in an almost Biblical struggle to save her family. At the time, Serbian forces were nearing Srebenica, but the U.N. assured the residents the town was a “safe zone,” and insisted if the Serbs violated that then there would be immediate airstrikes against them. The Serbs ignored the U.N, the airstrikes never came, and the townspeople fled to a U.N. compound nearby, with some taking shelter inside while many thousands more were forced to camp outside.
In the chaos, Aida finds one of her sons inside, and her husband and other son just outside the gates. And so, her fight begins against the absurd, almost Kafkaesque levels of bureaucracy that prevent her from first reuniting her family, and then later from saving their lives. As the Serbs come to the compound with the obviously empty promise they will peaceably escort the refugees to safety, we see the utter impotence of the Dutch U.N. forces and their complete failure to provide any sort of security for the people. And we see the Dutch faces, too, some of whom genuinely seem devoted to their aloof organizational hierarchy, some of whom just find it easier not to fight the absolute disaster that’s occurring, and some of whom break down in tears. All of this inaction contrasted with the constant movement of Aida, and the resolve, strength, and pain on her face.
The Bosnian genocide is an astounding global shame, and one that barely registered for a lot of people here. Quo Vadis, Aida? crushes you like a vise as we see just a tiny part of the horror so many people yawned at. It’s an exceptional, rage-inducing, and absolutely necessary film.