Jasmila Zbanic on Bosnian Oscar Nominee 'Quo Vadis, Aida?'

Courtesy of TIFF; Courtesy of Edvin Kalic

25 years after the Srebrenica massacre, Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic returns to tell the story of the greatest atrocity of the Yugoslav War.

Twenty-five years after the Srebrenica massacre, Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic (Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams) returns to tell the story of the greatest atrocity of the Yugoslav War.

In her film, the story of the killings — when under the eyes of U.N. Peacekeepers nearly 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were rounded up and shot dead by troops of Bosnian Serbs — is told from the perspective of Aida (Jasna Djuricic), a Bosnian translator working for the U.N. forces who races against time to try and save her husband and two sons from the coming slaughter.

Quo Vadis, Aida? premiered in Venice and Toronto and has landed an Oscar nomination for best international feature film (Bosnia & Herzegovina). Neon's Super LTD boutique label has picked up the North American rights to the film.

Zbanic spoke via Zoom from her home in Sarajevo with The Hollywood Reporter's European Bureau Chief Scott Roxborough about processing trauma, why it took nearly 30 years for her to attempt a film about Srebrenica, and why, watching the insurgents storm the Capitol building in Washington on Jan. 6, gave her a "nasty sense of deja-vu."

Your first movie, Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams (2006), dealt with the Bosnian war but more the aftermath, the scars, and trauma left a decade after. Why did it take you so long to do a film directly about the Srebrenica massacre?

Jasmila Zbanic: I don't have a rational explanation, I must say I was thinking about Srebrenica a lot, but 10 years ago I felt as a director, I'm wasn't ready for such a big film.

I talked to many survivors and I would always say: "your story deserves to be filmed." So many films about Srebrenica should be made. But I always thought it shouldn't be me. It was only after I finished four fiction films that I felt, as a director, I was ready. I have the experience. I feel secure enough to go into this.

The main problem then was not so much professional, because I felt ready. It was political. Because Srebrenica is still such a hot political subject. There are so many clashes about it, so many interpretations. You know, the [current] mayor of Srebrenica, he's a Serbian, denies that genocide ever happened.

There were certain narratives that I wanted to break, not only about denial, but there are some narratives from victims that I couldn't accept either. I had to find my own way. So these were also obstacles where I thought: 'OK if I'm really going into that territory, it will be very, very difficult to do.'

But Srebrenica is a subject that I have always been thinking about since '95, since, as a citizen of Bosnia when Srebrenica was taken by the Serbian army. I was so shocked by the fact that United Nations could just give up. That they could just betray the people like that.

All these questions were always running in my head. Then came the moment when we felt, my team and me, OK, we're ready to go into this. then we felt, OK, might my team and me, we were ready to go into this.

But then it took us many years to find the right angle, the right tone, the right characters. And also to finance it. Bosnia has only one million euros ($1.2 million) budgeted for all films produced in the country in an entire year. It was a very, very challenging project to get made.

What's the budget of Quo Vadis, Aida?

€4.5 million ($5.4 million). In the beginning, we managed to get 5 percent from Bosnia, and then we collected from nine other countries. We did a huge European co-production. After that, the Bosnian government gave us, I think, another 7 percent. So we had 12 percent Bosnian money but the rest was from the co-production partners.

Why did you decide to tell the story from the perspective of a Bosnian translator working for the U.N.?

I was searching for which perspective would be the best. In the beginning, I was very much interested in the political side of it. What we didn't know at the time was how many things were resolved, or not resolved, in-between New York, the Hague, Brussels, and Zagreb. It was very interesting. But then I thought, I want the audience to feel for these people, to be with them for a hundred minutes and go through what is going on in their skin.

That's when I thought: "I need someone who will be there, who will be Bosnian, but who can cross into this world of the U.N." The perspective of a translator allowed me to show both worlds: where they are colliding and how they are interacting.

There was also the story of a real person, a man, Hasan Nuhanovic, who had a similar kind of destiny. He wrote a book: Under the UN Flag: The International Community and the Srebrenica Genocide. But at one point, my story switched to a female character because I felt that it was more powerful to have a mother who is protecting her family.

Your film is a complete European co-production —you have Serbian, Bosnian, Belgian, and Dutch actors, an Austrian cinematographer (Christine A. Maier), a Polish editor (Jaroslaw Kaminski ). What that a challenge on set?

Look, Bosnia is a country that doesn't have enough of the professionals we need because we make too few movies. Professionals can't sustain themselves. We are forced to do co-productions. We were part of Yugoslavia, which has bigger cinema tradition, but after the war, we suddenly shrunk and were in a situation where our country doesn't have a film lab, where we don't have the resources to do a lot of things, because they were always done in Belgrade, in Zagreb. Co-production for us is a matter of necessity. We've done all our films as co-productions. It's not just about money, it's about the necessity of being able to physically get a film made.

For this movie, of course, it was important that we have Dutch actors, that we have people who are coming from different sides. But I had the choice as to who I wanted to work with. So I knew I had to have an editor from Poland, but I was able to work with Jaroslaw Kaminski (editor of Ida and Cold War). So this was a gift. Of course, communication is complicated and it takes a lot longer to get contracts done than if you have everyone and all the money in one country. But we have nice co-producers who loved and cared about the film. For me, this is natural because it's how we make movies here.

You mentioned how politically-sensitive Srebrenica still is. How much research did you do in writing your script? Aida is a fictional character but you have a lot of real people in there —including General Ratko Mladic (played by Serbian actor Boris Isakovic). How closely did you stick to the demonstrative facts?

Because it is so disputable, because there are so many false facts and fake narratives around Srebrenica, I wanted to research very precisely. All the facts have to be accurate. I was checking every single thing with several sources, of course, while still knowing it will be a fiction film. I didn't want to diminish the story by getting facts wrong.

There are certain elements that I had to change for the sake of the film. Like there were several meetings between the U.N. and General Mladic. That how I had it in my first version of the script. But it was killing the rhythm of the film. So I decided to have everything in one scene. But in the scenes where historical figures appear — like Mladic and (Dutch UN Commander) Colonel Karremans, I was almost using transcripts. Because I couldn't invent better dialog. The way Mladic behaves, his sentences, you couldn't imagine them.

And this character, Ratko Mladic, he's considered to be, or actually, he is a war criminal, according to the international tribunal, and according to the thousands of documents and witnesses they brought forward in his trial. But he's a hero for many people in Serbia. The Serbian government still applauds him. So I wanted to be as accurate as possible to not open the film up for attacks from that side.

If you look at the YouTube videos of Mladic that we used for our research, these scenes with him are almost exact transcriptions. Of course, it is our artistic interpretation of him. I noticed he was always traveling with a cameraman. He knows the power of propaganda and the power of images, how to present yourself. He's directing all the time. He's always saying to the cameraman: "go over there, film the other side. Film them not me." I thought: "he's directing and he's acting at the same time." For us, for the actor Boris Isakovic, who played Mladic, and for me, that was the key to opening him up as a character.

Watching the movie again, I was struck by similarities to the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. What did you think when you saw those images from Washington?

I had a feeling it's a flashback, a nasty sense of deja-vu. Because, you know, for Bosnians and for me, who remember when the war started, things flipped from normality to a war situation like that.

There were those images from [news photographer] Ron Haviv, who was in the Capitol building photographing these people. Haviv was in Yugoslavia during the war and he took the same images of Serbian extremists, who wore the same kind of costumes as these people in Washington.

It had for me the same feeling as back then. You think you live in a world that's safe and secure, and then one day — because of false facts, because of manipulation, because of leaders who are irresponsible who invite you to violence — everything changes.

I was just thinking: "Americans need to be more clever than we were." Because we bought that shit. Most of the people suddenly started believing their leaders and we went to war. But this insecurity, this kind of switch, was exactly how the war started in Bosnia.

What's been the response to your film, both in Bosnia and Serbia?

I was aware, because of the political situation, that many would like to use the film for their own political agendas. So we organized the premiere only for young people. No politicians or VIPs invited. We really wanted to make a premiere only for young people to tell them: you were born after these horrible things happened. You are neither guilty of them, nor are you the victims of what happened to your parents or your grandparents. You should know what happened, but you should be liberated and emancipated from this.

That set the tone for the whole distribution, because suddenly nobody, no politician, could grab the film to say: "this is a sad story about us Bosnians" or "this is against us Serbs." We invited kids from Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia and united them. I think the people appreciated this approach.

The right-wing press in Serbia, which is connected to the government there, were smashing my Serbian actors. Aida is played by a Serbian actress, Jasna Djuricic, the actor that plays General Mladic, Boris Isakovic, is from Serbia. So there was a lot of press saying that they are traitors, that they should never work again in Serbia. Stuff like that. But I had a feeling a lot of people in Serbia wanted to pay respect and to say we need this kind of film to be able to go on, not to deny stuff, not to put so much energy into lying about this but to go on.

I had reactions from some young people from Serbia or from Republika Srpska, which is part of Bosnia with a Serbian majority, who were saying "all my life I felt something was wrong with the narrative about Srebrenica. And now I feel I understand." It was a kind of catharsis.

I want the film to be used to help bring understanding between people. We can't deny the facts and we can't lie about it. Let's watch it. Let's look into each other's eyes and let's go on.

Distributors in Serbia were too afraid to distribute the film, the biggest festival in Serbia never responded to my emails. The day after we put the film on a VOD platform, they immediately answered: "sorry, now that it's on a platform, we can't show it." In a way, I understand because the government there can do many nasty things like closing the festival down.

How present is Srebrenica in modern-day Bosnia?

It is very present, unfortunately. When you come to Bosnia, things look completely normal. Like in Berlin or anywhere else. But the political situation is not solved. We never had closure with the war. It wasn't finished when the fascistic forces were defeated.

On the contrary, they got, through violence, half of Bosnia, the Republika Srpska. The people from the war stayed in power in politics. Even today. A few months ago, there were elections and there were T-shirts using Srebrenica, a knife, and barbed wire as a slogan against Muslims. Like, let's have another Srebrenica.

Politics here is always about making victims, Serbians claim they are the victims. Bosnian politicians are always making Bosnians out to be victims. We have the same mindset of politics from the 90s. It hasn't changed.

That's why I did this premiere for young people, to tell them to emancipate themselves, you know? To tell them to say fuck you to whoever tried to put this burden of history on you.

It's still a very, very tricky situation. We didn't go through catharsis, we didn't go through therapy for the war. Therapy is considered a weakness here. Nobody goes to treat themselves, especially men. But it's very much what we need as a people.