Sunday, May 15, 2022

Quo Vadis, Aida?


Writer/director Jasmila Žbanić

Žbanić on the set

Muslim women at a memorial site for the dead

Muslim cemetery

Serbian General Ratko Mladić

Karremans sharing a glass of wine with Mladić

QUO VADIS, AIDA?           B                                                                                                   Bosnia  Austria  Romania  Netherlands  Germany  Poland  France  Turkey  Norway  (101 mi)  2020  d: Jasmila Žbanić

There are no parallels to the life in the concentration camps.  Its horror can never be fully embraced by the imagination for the very reason that it stands outside of life and death.                                                                                                                                          —Hannah Arendt from The Meaning of Evil, by James Sias, 2016, The Meaning of Evil - Page 70 - Google Books Result

The break-up of Yugoslavia led to the formation of six republics that achieved their independence in 1992, one of which was Bosnia and Herzegovina.  From the outset, there were ethnic clashes between the majority Muslim population (44%) and the Orthodox Serbs (32.5%), with Serbian nationalist forces initially securing ethnic Serb territory, but war soon spread across the country, with ethnic rivalry evolving into religious hatred, becoming a struggle for territory and changing borders through ethnic cleansing, turning into the first genocide in Europe following WWII.  Serbian forces targeted Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica, as more than 8000 (a closing caption tallies the death count as 8,372) were systematically separated from the women and then executed over the course of three days, taken away to be tortured and murdered, their dismembered bodies buried in mass graves while the women were raped.  The core of the horrendous nature of war crimes, torture, mass executions, mass graves, the moving of bodies from one pit to another in an attempt to cover up genocide, are all omitted from the film.  Even so, to this day, right-wing Serbs continue to deny war crimes ever occurred, calling it a hoax and a lie, as it continues to be an open wound and remains one of the worst human catastrophes in the history of Europe since WWII, made even worse because it all took place under the supposed protection of United Nations forces in a declared “safe zone.”  After three and a half years under siege, the town of Srebrenica, only ten miles from the northeastern Serbian border, was declared a U.N. safety zone in 1993 and put under the protection of a Dutch battalion working for the United Nations known as the Blue Berets.  This film, realistically shot by Christine A. Maier, is a fictionalized recreation of that event, opening with a heated argument between U.N. commander Lieutenant Colonel Thom Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh), his deputy Major Franken (Raymond Thiry), and the Bosnian Mayor (Ermin Bravo), as the Serbs were shelling the city with no consequences.  Karremans insisted U.N. forces would start bombing the Serbs from the air beginning at 6 am the next day if they refused to meet an ultimatum to cease and desist, yet this was apparently no deterrence, as they’d been told the same thing before, yet the shelling continued.  Out of sheer exasperation, the Mayor asked what would happen if there was no U.N. response, Karremans indicated he was just a “piano player,” or simply a messenger in this entire ordeal, and could only do what was in his capacity, while also at the table was Aida Selmanagić (acclaimed Serbian actress Jasna Đuričić), a Bosnian school teacher working as a translator for the U.N. forces.  The entire film is seen through her eyes, offering a harrowing experience that can only be described as the insanity of war, as clearly the U.N. was not prepared for the severity of the circumstances.  By the next morning Serbian General Ratko Mladić (Boris Isaković), known as the “butcher of Bosnia,” takes the city, as the Mayor is quickly singled out and shot, forcing up to 5000 civilians to flee their homes and take refuge inside the U.N. compound under the protection of U.N. soldiers, as the U.N, peacekeepers represent their only hope of sanctuary, with another 25,000 more left outside the gates on open ground without any food and water, with no toilets, no doctors, and no protection.  No film, however, presents war atrocities with more shattering realism than Elem Klimov’s Come and See (Idi i smotri) (1985), which remains the film from which all others are compared.  What makes this distinctive, as a point of comparison, is that it’s told from a female perspective.

Conceived by Jasmila Žbanić, a Bosnian writer/director with a background as a documentary filmmaker who has examined this territory before in her earlier film GRBAVICA (2006), the first prominent local film made in the aftermath of the Bosnian war to focus on the war crimes of mass rape, with tens of thousands of mostly Bosnian Muslim women victims who were systematically subjected to the collective horror by Serbian soldiers.  A touching exposé of collective grief, speaking about an unspoken trauma, offering a point-of-view that is distinctly feminist, the film examines the life of a single mother in contemporary Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, winning a Golden Bear as the Best Film at the Berlin Film Festival where it premiered.  Placing herself on the front lines of anti-fascist women’s world cinema, this film, on the other hand, forces us to bear witness to mass atrocities, as it dramatizes the hours leading up to the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, the single worst atrocity of the Bosnian war, with Aida making desperate attempts to save her family, including her husband Nihad (Izudin Bajrović) and her two sons, pleading with Karremans and anyone else who would listen to put their names on the protected list, but they refuse, claiming it is against regulations, believing preferential treatment might incite riots, as they were already dealing with a volatile situation, feeling like a tinder box on the verge of an explosion.  Mladić provides a show negotiations that pretends to include Bosnian civilian input, including Nihad, that suggests there is freedom of choice, yet the civilians are told they can “either survive or disappear,” as Serbian guards control every aspect of movement, with no existing options other than obey or be shot down.  Aida’s sense of increasing panic and desperation provide the central focus of the film, with everyone grabbing her hand, calling out her name, asking her to make sense of the overriding chaos, constantly barraged in this manner as the world around her quickly spins out of control, leading to a kind of Kafkaesque madness, as no one seems to be in charge, leaving all these citizens at risk, quickly corralled into busses and herded into separate groups by armed Serbian soldiers right under the noses of the U.N. commanders, who acquiesce to Mladić and the Serbian military, using attack dogs to guarantee compliance, exactly as the Nazi’s did during WWII.  Knowing that what she translates is dangerously untrue, she nonetheless is placed in the absurd predicament where she is forced to tell a warehouse full of panicked refugees that the Serbs have finished “evacuating” those outside, and that now it is their turn, and that they will be safe.  The most explicit guarantee of weakness is Mladić’s ability to get an armed Serbian contingency inside the compound (though it is also against regulations) under the auspices of searching for weapons or war criminals, but really they’re evaluating the strength/weakness of the U.N. forces themselves, which show no backbone whatsoever, as Mladić’s team walks all over them, relinquishing their authority to the Serbs, becoming enablers, as the “safe” compound and its surroundings inadvertently becomes a site of mass entrapment, in effect, a concentration camp.  This horrible sequence is especially chilling when we realize the extent of familiarity with one another, as it is neighbor against neighbor, classmate against classmate, with many of the Serb soldiers recognizing Aida as their teacher, inquisitively asking about her sons that she has gone to terrible lengths to hide and shield from this very outcome, conveyed with an incalculable dread, as everyone’s hopes for safety are quickly shattered, instead falling under a pall of doom.  It feels inconceivable that U.N. military officers, or any other rational person, could witness the separation of women and men, herded by gunpoint, and not know the playbook, as the systematic murder through ethnic cleansing was originally outlined by the Nazi’s in the Holocaust, but it has been repeated by the Serbs, more recently the Syrians, and now the Russians, who negotiate grandiose promises, such as safe passageways, but then conduct massive assaults on those innocent civilians attempting to escape from the surrounding terror.  This is a chilling reminder, however, of “Never forget,” but clearly people find a way to remain blind to the obvious, as all the supposed safeguard measures were simply forgotten in the name of expedience, perhaps even relieved that someone was taking this massive humanitarian crisis off their shoulders, unwilling to follow through with even minimum reality checks, as none of the supposedly safe transports of separated men, women, and even the wounded, ever reached their destination.    

Aida, onscreen in nearly every shot, almost always seen with a cigarette dangling from her lips, is a fictional character inspired by the experiences of former U.N. interpreter Hasan Nuhanović, a male translator who survived genocide, testified against war criminals, became a chronicler of genocide, writing a book about his experiences in 2007, Under the U.N. Flag: The International Community and the Srebrenica Genocide, and wrote many times on his Facebook page about the troubles he had with Žbanić, as she took artistic liberties with his narrative, preferring to focus on the human dimension of the story, though the men around Aida are real, including Major Franken, who reacts to Aida’s claims that people are being slaughtered by scolding her for “spreading rumors,” and Karremans, whose response to those same reports is to lock himself in his office, grumbling “Leave me alone.”  As it turns out, according to a superior officer, General Hans Kouzy, Karremans was under considerable personal and psychological pressure at the time he was appointed commander of the Dutch peacekeeping battalion in Srebrenica, as he was in the process of an ugly divorce and was not fully focused on his military duties, leaving most of the decisions concerning Muslim refugees to his deputy, Major Robert Franken, who adopted a legalistic, by-the-book approach.  In 2010, Nuhanović accused Colonel Karremans, his deputy Major Franken and others of war crimes for their transfer of Muslim families to the Serbs.  A doctor at the base accused Karremans of lying to the U.N. war crimes tribunal when he claimed he had no idea what would happen to them.  In 2015 a Dutch appeals court decided not to prosecute them (Dutch Court Rejects Prosecuting Srebrenica Peacekeepers), though the court found that both Karremans and Franken had reason to believe that the Serbs were killing at least some of the male prisoners, but due to the lightness of their arms probably couldn’t have changed the outcome, so when the case was appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, they denied to hear the case.  It’s worth noting that other U.N. commanders reacted differently when confronted with similar situations, as a month after the Srebrenica events, some 700 Serbs took refuge in a United Nations base in the Croatian town of Knin, KNIN: 700 SERB REFUGEES STRANDED AT UN BASE YouTube (2:47), after the Croatian army regained area from Serb control.  Croatian generals demanded that some refugees be handed over as alleged war criminals, the same argument used by Mladić in Srebrenica.  The commander of the Canadian peacekeeping forces, however, General Alain Forand, rejected the Croatian demand.  Karremans was promoted upon his return after the war to a full Colonel, but later retired and moved to Spain on account of death threats he received.  Žbanić has crafted an eloquent and conscientious picture that ticks down the moments that inevitably precede historical acts of genocide, made all the more suspenseful from Đuričić’s performance.  The fatalistic predictability of this film, however, unravels like a snuff film, as the doomsday scenario is predetermined from the outset, told with a very heavy hand, feeling ominous throughout, where the gravity even weighs on the viewer, as there is no let up, where the elephant in the room is the underlying theme of ethnic hatred, which is all but ignored by the U.N. forces, and that omission is basically pounded into the consciousness of viewers who are waiting for the axe to fall, as the Serbian promises of safe keeping are simply too incredulous to believe.  Yet the Serbs repeat over and over again that no one will be harmed, no one will be hurt, all innocent people will be safe, with Mladić himself stepping inside a bus filled with Muslim women, camera in tow, claiming “I am here to save you,” and “I grant you the gift of life,” an egregious lie that is meant to instill a sense of calm before the inevitable storm of bullets.  Žbanić leaves out the fate of the women (though we do see a screaming young woman dragged away from her mother) and the wounded and instead focuses on what happens to every one of the men and boys, showing the graphic devastation of their brutal murders, but the camera pans away from their deaths, as the machine gun sound reverberates throughout the calmness of the neighborhood, where all can hear.  When it’s all over, people are supposed to forget the monstruousness they witnessed from their neighbors and members of their communities.  A Serb commander and his wife move into Aida’s apartment after the war because they thought its inhabitants were all dead.  In a quietly devastating sequence, Aida is looking for the remains of her sons and husband years after the genocide, walking alongside many other women through a big hall where human remains and their belongings are displayed on the floor, suddenly pausing, as she begins to sob quietly, her final confirmation that the worst is true.  Released on the 25th anniversary of the massacre, the final aftermath conveys a school performance sequence, still a little unsettling, as animosities persist, knowing most people who committed atrocities during the war will go unpunished, with the camera panning over the parents, where it’s not at all uncommon for survivors to mix with the perpetrators of war crimes in a new societal normalization, depicting a class of primary school children dancing on stage, exhibiting peek-a-boo, see-no-evil hand gestures in an unequivocal, wordless indictment of all nations that stood by and looked away, allowing human atrocities to happen. 

Postscript                                                                                                                                     According to Kofi Annan, the U.N. Secretary-General of the time, “Through error, misjudgement, and an inability to recognize the scope of evil confronting us, we failed to do our part to help save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder.”

Ratko Mladić was finally arrested in Serbia in 2011, convicted of war crimes in 2017, in part for Srebrenica, losing his appeal for a genocide conviction in 2021, and will spend the rest of his life at the Hague in prison (Ratko Mladić, 'butcher of Bosnia', loses appeal against ...).

In stark contrast, Croatian filmmaker Nebojsa Slijepčević’s Srbenka (2018) adapts controversial Croatian theater director Oliver Frljić’s play based upon a 1991 murder of a 12-year old Serbian girl, Aleksandar Zec, who was tied up and kidnapped along with her mother and father, taken to a mountain retreat, then shot in the head with an automatic rifle, all brutally murdered and their bodies dumped in a garbage pit by a 5-man militia group consisting of a special Croatian police unit near the start of the Yugoslav Wars.  No one has ever been held accountable. 

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