TIFF 2020 review: Quo Vadis, Aida? (Jasmila Žbanić)

In Madness of the Day, Maurice Blanchot writes about a man that almost went blind after a violent attack. While still dealing with his pain, he must provide to a doctor and an officer an account of the facts. The nameless character then narrates the facts: the broken glass thrown into his eyes, and what followed that. His listeners, however, cannot fully grasp what happened so they demand that the man tell his story again and again until one of them makes some sense out of it. This irrational interrogation leads us to a point at which even the survivor recognizes that he can provide the facts, not input to make sense of them. Terrible things happen and they are senseless. Who can claim to understand evil? The tale goes back to its beginning, the man reintroduces himself as a man who studied and lived a happy life, as happy as one could up to that moment; he goes back to the beginning because there is nothing else he can do, he is stuck in that circle of violence and testimony.

Jasmila Žbanić’s Quo Vadis, Aida? brought this little tale back to my mind for it centers its narrative upon a translator (Jasna Đuričić) working at a UN base during the events that led to the genocide of Srebrenica in 1995. So Aida listens to soldiers, civilians, and doctors, and is forced to produce some sense in senseless times while translating everything that is told to her, which is her way of being useful and trying to keep her family and herself safe inside the base. Again, going back to Blanchot’s short story, one needs to notice how that man faced violence coming not only from his attackers but also from the doctor who took care of his eyes and the law officer; they demanded a narrative of him, yet they were not really listening or interested in what he was saying. They wanted him to produce a narrative that made sense to them, not to the victim. History has almost never bothered to listen to those who give the accounts that will end up becoming history. It seems a paradox and perhaps it is one. But those who ask the survivors what happened are also engaged in what happened. In one way or another.

Now thinking of Srebrenica, is it possible to produce a narrative out of events that had in their own roots the attempt to erase them from history? For isn’t a characteristic of genocides not only the annihilation of a people and their history, but also the paperwork of the crime itself? What lies behind the demand for a testimony? Is someone really listening, or as one of the people hiding inside that UN base puts it at the beginning of the film: “Will anyone in the world witness this tragedy?” Thus Quo Vadis, Aida?, a film initially about a translator, fails to use its main character’s position to actually tell the history of those people by translating them for its own audience. Quo Vadis, Aida? wanders between memory, dreams, and the voices from both: UN soldiers and the Serbian army, and because of this, the slaughtered remain once again voiceless in the history of their own killing.

That is not to say that Quo Vadis, Aida? should have completely ignored the voices of the ones who perpetrated the terror. On the contrary. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing has used those voices quite skillfully: by recreating the killings using the ones who perpetrated them as actors, Oppenheimer commented on the banality of evil through those surreal images. More recently, Terrence Malick did something similar by relocating the evil-doing agency to the hands of common people in his A Hidden Life. What bothered me in Žbanić’s film is how people who were to be killed were always on the screen but as a background for Aida’s family history which fails to act as a metonym of Srebrenica.

So what is in the cinematic experience that is man’s concern? Cinema, above all things, is an ontological invention constantly torn between intention and realization. The film itself is what is left after this division, it is what remains, the ruins to let people know that something that was there before is beyond their reach, the intention; and something prevailed to stay behind, the realization. Art becomes an abstract of human experience, and it is because of that that cinema is a heterogeneous phenomenon that is always about an Other. Cinema is more than its techniques and technologies. It is something man-made, and as such it is complex and unstable, for we are complex and unstable as well.

To sum up, a film, any film, Quo Vadis, Aida? for example, does not owe its audience anything. The screen is an infinite space that accepts anything, it is free to not engage, but we are not. We are beings in a world which we act upon and our existence is always dialectical, for it is never about one individual, but one Self’s relation to an Other. So, why does Žbanić’s film use a translator as its main character if it is not going to translate what is happening? Or would such a task be even possible? Is it because the film is focused on the events prior to the massacre? But weren’t those people sleeping on concrete floors without water, food, or a toilet, victims already? Aida is there with them, so why not engage with people? No one listened to them while they were alive; after death, will they be able speak? Finally, how does one approach ethically Srebrenica, the Holocaust, the Armenian massacre, the Rape of Nanjing, the indigenous people’s massacres across the Americas, and many others through art? In this case, who talks and who does not becomes a problem for Quo Vadis, Aida? and the agencies of its characters.

There is art because there are human beings, and perhaps it is through symbolic representation that we try to grasp the ungraspable reality of things. So, life ends up being a search for the meaning of life itself; however, by thinking about it, we are also thinking about death. This problem is one for philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists to solve, but art on the other hand can help us to immortalize things and people. Cinema is one of the answers for how we get back the lost time.

Giorgio Agamben once posited that the perfect witnesses are those who cannot speak, for their testimony is unspeakable. In this sense, the truth about Auschwitz or Srebrenica would be with their dead. For each time a genocide happens, it is as if history itself had ended. The survivors tell their stories and they have been doing so for quite some time now. One could argue that the 20th century was a century of archives. Following this line of thought, cinema perhaps should give up altogether trying to represent what defies representation, and understand that art must be made against history, in spite of it. Drawing from Adorno’s thoughts on poetry after Auschwitz, poetry should be made in spite of that, not looking at the tragedy in search of inspiration. There is none, for history ended there, and we continued to live. The same applies to cinema and any other artform. Hence, the question remains, whither goest thou, Aida?

In the film, she went back to her life as a teacher, now without her family; they are dead and therefore they changed from subjects to objects of a story that is for others to tell. Why not let the dead speak since the last century produced so many ghosts that still haunt us? Without an answer, although no one can be sure that there is one, the film ends with a dedication to the 8,372 people killed: fathers, brothers, sons, and neighbors. Here, this essay finishes also with a dedication to these 8,372 people, and to the more than six million Jewish people killed during the Holocaust, and the fifteen thousand gay men that were sent to the camps wearing a pink triangle and dying under Paragraph 175 of the German criminal code; but also to the queer people in Chechnya, Russia, Poland, and Hungary right now. To the souls that haunt the Atlantic and the slaves whose lives were taken from them so that capitalism could flourish in the colonies; but also to every black person who still has to scream that their lives matter. To the trans people being constantly killed and having their rights taken from them. To every woman being murdered by the hands of men, in the past and right now. To sum up, it is not enough to look at history as a way to not repeat past mistakes again; one should look at history and first understand that it is a story we were told and we keep telling the future generations. Sometimes it makes sense, and other times it does not. However, there should be accountability, and that won’t come unless we listen to the testimony of the dead and are willing to examine the ruins our societies were built upon. Which is a hard thing to do.