For Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic and her crew, Quo Vadis, Aida?, their Oscar-nominated feature about the Srebrenica genocide, is more than just a film.
Twenty-five years since the atrocity that took place under the United Nations’ watch, Bosnians are now telling their story on the big screen for the first time.
“It was very emotional for the whole crew,” Zbanic told Al Jazeera. “Not only Bosnians but for our international crew – this work was more than a professional task. We all felt this is not just a film.
“The process of healing starts when your trauma is recognised and respected by others.”
Quo Vadis, Aida? has been racking up numerous awards, and some critics say Bosnia and Herzegovina is a strong contender to win its second Oscar in the international feature film category.
In 2001, Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land, a film about the war in Bosnia, won the Oscar for Best International Feature Film.
Zbanic’s story takes place in July 1995, when the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, a UN-declared safe zone, fell to Serb forces, headed by Bosnian Serb leader Ratko Mladic.
Today, he is a convicted war criminal jailed in The Hague, having been found guilty of genocide.
Over the span of a few days, Serb forces systematically killed more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica while the UN stood by.
The film is based on Under the UN Flag, a book by Hasan Nuhanovic, a Bosniak survivor from Srebrenica who worked as a translator for the UN at the time.
Nuhanovic saw his family murdered.
Testimonies of survivors, many of whom participated in the film, were at hand to bring the story to life.
Serbian actress Jasna Djuricic plays the protagonist role of Aida, a Bosnian teacher who works as an English translator for the UN. Her position provides her protection, but not to her husband and two young sons.
The title translates to Where are you going, Aida?
Aida is constantly moving throughout the film. As death draws closer for the Bosniak men and boys at the UN base in Potocari, her pace quickens as she desperately tries to save her family from execution.
The UN’s disregard for the civilians, who they were supposed to protect, is a central theme.
After Mladic and his forces captured Srebrenica, and as thousands of Bosnians have gathered outside the UN base for protection, Thomas Karremans, commander of the UN’s Dutchbat (Dutch battalion), in a phone call with the UN, asks why air strikes were not issued for defence, as he had promised to the mayor of Srebrenica.
Instead of receiving support, he is told the secretary-general and the entire UN chain of command are on vacation.
“The UN was influenced by political interest of the Western countries, and the Dutch were in a terrible position,” Zbanic said. “But still they had a mission and the means to protect people, but they did not fire a single bullet.”
As Aida runs frantically back and forth trying to save her family, Dutchbat is seen moving slowly and reacting passively, as though in another world.
Zbanic read the UN final report on Srebrenica, drafted by David Harland, a peacekeeper in Bosnia at the time.
“He helped me a lot with understanding certain things because he had the possibility to talk to commanders, and I did not. I had asked them several times, but they refused. David read the script and gave me very helpful comments,” Zbanic said.
The technical aspects of the film were also complex.
Instead of filming in Srebrenica, the crew resorted to filming in Mostar and Stolac in Herzegovina.
The current Serb mayor of Srebrenica, Mladen Grujicic, denies that a genocide took place – despite court rulings – as does the Serb political establishment in both Bosnia and Serbia.
Djuricic, the actor playing Aida, and her Serbian husband Boris Isakovic, who plays Mladic, have been labelled as traitors by the Serbian far right for taking part in the film.
Meanwhile, Bosniak families are still looking for the remains of some 1,000 victims killed in the Srebrenica genocide.
“Politically, the genocide in Srebrenica is still a subject of big clashes in our region … It was very hard to make a film in such an emotional and toxic environment, especially having in mind that genocide deniers are still in our government.
“They will not support the film – on the contrary. We couldn’t shoot the film in Srebrenica because the mayor is one of the deniers,” Zbanic said.
Some financial support, meanwhile, came from Europe.
“Bosnia produces one film per year with approximate budget of one million euros ($1.2m),” Zbanic said. “And our film [costs] 4.5 million euros ($5.4m).
“So it was a huge effort to put money together. We had nine European countries coproducing this film.”
Zbanic said she looks forward to people watching the film.
“Though it is about the 8,372 [people] killed, there is almost no drop of blood or killing that is explicitly shown,” Zbanic said.
“It is a film about Bosnia but I think it is a film about human beings, about the US and Europe and the world. It tells the story of how acts of nationalism and fascism, which look funny or ridiculous at the start of such movements, might end.”