Liberal imagination tends to consider translation as an act of building bridges between cultures. But if the history of colonialism and nationalist hegemony has any lesson to offer, it’s that building bridges isn’t necessarily a guarantor of mutual respect. Translation is an act of faith, and as someone who cannot produce new discourse, only affirm existing ones, the translator is essentially a powerless figure, even when his/her own existence is at stake.  

This powerlessness is front and square in the superbly-edited first scene of Jasmila Žbanić’s Quo Vadis, Aida?, nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature this year. Seated amid clouds of cigarette smoke, a tense but focused interpreter, Aida (Jasna Đuričić), translates between a group of civilians from Srebrenica, Bosnia, and a unit of UN peacekeepers. The locals are worried about the advance of the Serb army into their city, supposedly a UN-protected “safe area”, while the Blue Berets assure them that the NATO has their back.  

As the camera pans back and forth between the two camps, in a meditative manner that belies the tension of the situation, Aida translates words, but the essential part of the communication succeeds without her intervention: rising and falling pitches, quivering voices, defiant stares and denied handshakes. Aida is personally implicated in the standoff, but her emotional state has little bearing on either the tenor of the negotiation or its outcome. Hers is not to reason why, but to smoothen a process, even if the process is to dispatch a group of people to certain death.  

Quo Vadis dramatizes the days preceding the Srebrenica massacre, in which over eight thousand Bosniak Muslims were slaughtered. It weaves a factual account of how the genocide was allowed to happen with a fictional story told from Aida’s point of view. A host of factors are summoned to court: the deep-seated ethnophobia of the Serb soldiers, the cunning media manipulation of General Mladić (Boris Isaković), who orchestrated the massacre, the indifference of the NATO for whom Bosniaks were simply pawns on a political chessboard, the failure of the UN command to stand up to Mladić and their ignoble capitulation to him.

All this clear-eyed analysis would have been formally unwieldly were it not for the character of Aida, who binds these diverging perspectives together. Her unique position between the Bosniaks and the UN forces helps the film to never deviate too far away from her own story. Aida tries, with every means at her disposal, to rescue her husband and two sons from the fate reserved to the other members of her community. Part of Žbanić’s accomplishment is the way she manages to open up the film from this narrow narrative perspective to larger political questions in a fairly organic manner.

This tactic isn’t without considerable limitations. Though a Bosniak herself, Aida is a quasi-outsider who shares little with the huddled masses that make up the refugees at the UN camp. No Bosniak outside of Aida’s family has any individuality to speak of, and the only two characters to be singled out during negotiations with Mladić exist solely in order to be humiliated. Refugees are marshalled, instead, into a series of vignettes depicting the injustice and violence they are subject to — images that recall Hollywood’s recreations of historical atrocities in their unsettling virtuosity. The absence of any reference to armed resistance by Bosniak soldiers or civilians is, moreover, a political convenience that weakens the film’s argument.

Quo Vadis is at its strongest, though, when it sticks close to Aida, whom it follows with a handheld camera whenever it isn’t allowing us a moment of repose with static or slowly panning shots. Jasna Đuričić’s turn as Aida is formidable, and director Žbanić composes her shots around the character’s nervous physicality. Wearing trousers and an unbuttoned blue shirt over her blouse, the middle-aged Aida briskly moves through numerous obstacles at the UN facility, climbing up and down containers, and snaking in and out of its makeshift offices. The frame can barely contain her energy. Associated all through the film with two objects — cigarettes and loudspeakers — she becomes a powerful visual anchor for the viewer.

War films have a tendency to lionize their protagonists, turning them into heroes who shape or defy the course of history. Quo Vadis, however, takes pains to underscore that Aida is not a hero. Her character has little by way of ideals or even work ethic; she is willing to translate patent lies and she is willing to not translate uncomfortable truths. She is an accidental interpreter and would rather be rescuing her family than arranging toilet facilities or delivering babies at the camp. Aida is determined to save her husband and two sons, even if it means passively shepherding the other refugees to their grave, and she has no compunction about this. For her, it isn’t about justice or community rights, it’s about familial survival. And this relative moral complexity holds the character at a healthy distance from the viewer.  

But the real human complexity arrives with the film’s extended coda in which Aida comes back to Srebrenica years after the war. She is a foreigner in her own neighbourhood, which is now occupied by Serbs. In her class at school are children of the genocide victims, but also those of the perpetrators and enablers. Could Aida ever love teaching again, given that it was one of her former students who helped deport her husband and sons? With victims now expected to put their past behind and be part of the same civil society with war criminals, the notions of truth and reconciliation ring hollow. Performing together on a single stage for a school programme, the ethnically diverse kids look alright. That would, at least, be Aida’s hope.


[Originally published at Firstpost]