With its harrowing true story of a UN translator desperately trying to save her family during the Bosnian War, Quo Vadis, Aida? is sure to be one of the top Oscar contenders for Best International Feature Film. Directed by award-winning filmmaker Jasmila Žbanić, this searing drama chronicles events surrounding the siege of Srebrenica by the Serbian Army in July 1995, which led to a massacre of the Bosniak population. Officially recognized as a genocide, the events forever shaped the lives of the Bosnian people. In discussing the film with Žbanić, she revealed the war’s personal impact on her filmmaking career and the lessons learned from the tragedy. Below is an edited version of that conversation.
Shane Slater: I read that you started out your career as a puppeteer and clown. How did you transition from that to making serious films about war?
Jasmila Žbanić: It was kind of a parallel thing. I decided from very young to be a director. I didn’t know at the time that it was called “director” but as a kid I was always gathering others for performances. That was my main thing. Grabbing the camera from my uncle and shooting a film during birthday parties. Then when I realized what it was, my dream was to enroll in an academy.
When I was 17, the war started in Bosnia and nothing was working. Then they decided to reopen the academy in very hard circumstances. We didn’t have electricity and heating. So it was very hard to organize film school. At that time it was a life saver because suddenly there was a meaning to life. You’re not just sitting in a shelter. Though it was very dangerous to go from your apartment to the academy, we did it and it saved our lives.
During my studies, Peter Schumann from Bread & Puppet Theater in Vermont came to Sarajevo as a supporter of citizens because the city was under siege for years. So Peter Schumann decided – Susan Sontag also – to come from the US to support. I was a student at that time and I was absolutely amazed by Peter Schumann as a director. He was doing stuff with puppets and I loved it so much. The essence of his work is very political, with a lot of warmth and heart. This was something I was always aiming for. So I was working with Peter Schumann in the US for six months in 1995, living on a farm in Vermont. It was beautiful. We are still in touch.
During the war, another US citizen also came named Lee De Long who was living in Paris. She is a wonderful actress and director and she did clowns with us. It was not children’s clowns but serious commedia dell’arte. And that also opened my eyes because as a clown you have to make fun of yourself. This is the hardest thing to do. To show all your vulnerabilities and make fun of things you are hiding and don’t want them to see. This was very important for me as a filmmaker. To not be afraid of emotions and try to expose things and not be so serious about myself. This is very important, to know how to handle your ego.
SS: You’ve now made several films about the Bosnian war. What specifically about this narrative inspired you to tell this story?
JZ: In 1995, when we heard that Srebrenica, a UN-protected area, was taken by the Serbian army, it was like our whole system of values was crashing. Who can you believe if an organization like the UN is not trustworthy? You completely lose the ground under your feet. At that moment, Sarajevo was under heavy attack and other cities. It was over for us. We were not protected. The UN had this rule that the Bosnians were not allowed to be armed. So we were not armed and not protected at the same time. Which was like we were condemned to disappear.
So this left a big emotional impression on me and only later did we find out how many people were killed. There was no press at that moment, other than Serbian propagandist press which was not telling the truth about what was happening. Only later did we find out about the killings and mass graves. I was closely following this story. Living in Bosnia, you can’t avoid being affected by it. It’s in the daily news.
I was always interested in what it means for human beings to survive it all. For mothers to search for bodies. There were a lot of stories I heard. One of them was about a translator who wrote a book about the events. My character is fictionalized but it’s inspired by this true story. This translator is between two worlds. Emotionally she’s Bosnian. She wants to protect people and when she’s not able to, her humanity is shrinking in a way to save her family. But on the other hand, she’s a translator who knows everybody from the UN structure. She has information that other Bosnians don’t have. So I thought this was a very good way to show how both worlds depend on each other and influence each other.
SS: One of the most striking scenes comes early in the film when she climbs up and the camera pans to show a huge mass of people trying to get in to the UN compound. Was it a challenge to produce a film on this scale?
JZ: Yes, especially because Bosnia is a very small country. It’s also a very poor country where there isn’t really a film industry. Usually Bosnian films have around a $500,000 USD budget and the calculation for this film was about $6,000,000 USD. For us, that’s a science fiction budget. Nobody believed we would be able to raise it. In this sense, it was very hard. Because we don’t have enough professionals, we always have to do co-productions. We had a set designer from Austria and he arrived and asked “Where is the storage for the props?” And we had to say that doesn’t exist. We have to look for them and buy them somewhere. And he was about to quit. But the Bosnian people who were assisting were doing this with all their heart. So we managed to get it to a professional level even if many things were missing.
For the scene you were talking about, we had a little more than 500 extras and that was also a challenge. Luckily we decided to shoot it last year and not this year, because the film would die! [Laughs]. With this number of extras having to be so close to each other, I think for these next two years we would not have been able to film.
We had visual effects for the mass scenes and the people from the Netherlands did a great job. But I also studied a lot of films like Schindler’s List, where there are mass scenes and you have intelligent ways to make you think that you are watching a lot of people.
SS: The shoot must have been physically demanding for your lead actress Jasna Đuričić. What was that collaboration like?
JZ: She’s an amazing actress who is very professional and prepared. Luckily in our countries (she’s from Serbia), we still have something left over from the socialist system we had until the 1990s. Most of the actors are employed in theaters or academies, so they don’t have to worry about a salary every month. They have security. So most of the actors were able to work with me on preparations without being paid.
So we spent a lot of time reading the script even while I was writing it. Then we also had the possibility to prepare on set. We rented the apartment where the main family lives in the film. And before the shoot, we spent days there going through the history of the family. It’s not in the film but it was important for them to go through things like how the parents met, fell in love, furnished their house. We went through everything. This memory of the emotions and history helped a lot because their bodies already had the memories of the backstory of the family.
For Jasna, the preparations were very good because she knew the speed and rhythms of the character. During the shoot we were joking that when we read the script we didn’t realize that it was an action movie! She’s running all the time, like an action hero.
SS: A lot of key scenes take place behind closed doors, where they negotiated and strategized. Did that require you to do a lot of research?
JZ: Srebrenica is still a very hot topic in our region because Serbian officials deny that a genocide happened. Even though it is confirmed in the Hague tribunal. General Mladić is still celebrated as a hero in Serbia, which is very insulting for the victims and people of Bosnia. So there are a lot of clashes and very often in the public space, there are heated debates about this. So I didn’t want to make any mistake because I didn’t want people to say I’m manipulating any facts.
I did a lot of research and talked to many people from all sides. Meeting Dutch soldiers and UN people for example. I also had information from translators about how these meetings went. Sometimes the perspectives weren’t matching up. Like, the translator said the Bosnian man who was present knew that planes would not come. But the UN representative said that this man actually believed that help from the UN would come. I had different versions of the same story. So sometimes I had to judge what details would be good for the film. But I didn’t want to change the basic facts. Those things I tried to research well.
SS: These events happened so recently. I’d imagine people still have strong memories and opinions about the war and its portrayal.
JZ: Not only that, but 1,700 bodies are still not found. In order to send somebody to prison, you have to find bodies to prove that they did it. So these murderers are still free and they do everything to deny and hide what they did. It’s not like other countries where it’s a case of right wing vs left wing. It’s not about that. This is a case where we have murderers free and they want to hide.
In Bosnia, some young people from the Serbian territory saw the film. We decided to make the premiere open only to young people. We didn’t want any politicians to come and say this is propaganda. So we invited young people from Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia mainly to tell them they are free from war narratives. You can see what happened and talk about it, but it’s not your fault. These politicans are trying to impose narratives on the next generation, to feel guilty for something they didn’t do. Even if their parents committed a crime, they should be emancipated from that. This emancipation is crucial.
SS: With Quo Vadis, Aida? representing Bosnia and Herzegovina as its official Oscar submission, does this put any added pressure on you and the film?
JZ: No, I’m really happy about that. I really would like for people to see the film and just being the candidate for Bosnia lifts its profile. This helps the film. My aim is for the film to be watched by many. I think it is not only about Bosnia. It talks about every human situation where we establish systems of protection for people and there are moments where these systems can collapse. And we are living in these times where we are witnessing how easy these systems collapse and hurt belief. I would like people seeing the film to go through this 100 minutes of human experience, so that hopefully they never think that war or violent conflict is the solution for anything.