The Serbian star of the Bosnian nominee for the Oscar for best international film says the movie's genius lies in "telling our most frightening story, the Srebrenica story," while conveying the universality of a tragedy that divides the Balkans.
Lead actress Jasna Djuricic called this week's nomination of Sarajevo-born filmmaker Jasmila Zbanic's Quo Vadis, Aida? a "special moment" that "shakes the entire region."
The film is the first feature-length dramatization of events around the notorious massacre in 1995 of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys abandoned by UN peacekeepers after being encircled by Bosnian Serb forces -- the single deadliest European atrocity since World War II.
Written, produced, and directed by the 46-year-old Zbanic, it follows the desperate efforts of a fictional UN translator -- played by Djuricic -- to protect her husband and sons from the emerging genocide as it becomes increasingly clear that international peacekeepers will not.
Djuricic hailed its message of "reconciliation" amid waning public awareness of "the greatest wound in the Balkans," particularly among young people.
"I am especially happy that this is such an important topic, which otherwise shakes our region in different directions and provokes violent reactions, even though nearly 30 years has passed," she told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.
Djuricic also talked about the need for "many, many more movies" to foster healing "on all sides" and the perils of denying historical tragedies like Srebrenica.
A Human Story
The Hollywood nod is a rare international triumph for Bosnia-Herzegovina's cinematic community, long hampered by the former Yugoslav republic's ethnic divisions and a lack of funds that forced its visionary filmmaker to assemble a 10-country co-production to make its $5.4 million budget.
Variety magazine called Quo Vadis, Aida? a "harrowing, vital retelling" of the Srebrenica massacre, which the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has ruled a genocide.
The Dutch Supreme Court in 2017 upheld an earlier ruling that held the Dutch peacekeepers partly liable for the tragedy after they abandoned the UN "safe area" to Bosnian Serb forces.
"That was fantastic -- somehow the knowledge that the film, telling our scariest story, the Srebrenica story, spread to a universal level, where really everyone, of any skin color or nation -- can identify with it," Djuricic said. "Why? Because in the center of Jasmila's film is a man, a woman, and not some story about some kind of politics but a story about an individual who manages as best he or she can in war conditions."
Djuricic's character, Aida Selmanagic, sees the UN capitulation coming despite the commanders' assurances and tries to secure seats for her husband and sons in the evacuation vehicles.
Before Quo Vadis, Aida? Djuricic was best-known to international film audiences for winning best actress for White White World at the Locarno Film Festival in 2010.
She said the goal of Quo Vadis, Aida? was to honor "reconciliation," not division.
"Our wish, in making this film, our common wish, was for it to be a film in honor of our reconciliations, and not in any other direction -- inciting negative connotations or inciting hatred," Djuricic said. "Of course, whenever it comes to films that treat such painful things -- and I think that Srebrenica is a source of pain for the entire Balkans -- one must be terribly smart and careful."
Another of this year's Oscar submissions from the Balkans exploring the horrors of war, the Serbian film Dara Of Jasenovac, has been less successful at avoiding controversy and accusations of ethnic and nationalist bias.
Western film critics and some Serbs have accused its director, Predrag Antonujevic, of using the story of a young girl condemned to a World War II concentration camp in Croatia to deliver a more nationalistic message. Variety magazine called Dara Of Jasenovac "an undisguised piece of Serbian nationalist propaganda...dressed up in concentration camp clothing."
Antonujevic reportedly vowed a U.S. lawsuit over a Los Angeles Times reviewer's similar criticism. A spokeswoman told RFE/RL that the Los Angeles Times was "not aware of any legal action and the review remains as published."
Djuricic sidestepped any comparison and said she hadn't seen the Serbian film.
Born in Ruma, in present-day Serbia, Djuricic teaches acting in the Serbian second city of Novi Sad and calls herself "a child of Yugoslavia." At 54, she is old enough to remember the Balkan Wars of the 1990s that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia.
She bristles at questions about a Serb being cast to play the role of a Bosnian woman.
"I get a little angry when they ask me, for example, 'What it was like to play a Bosnian woman?'" she said. "So wait, a woman is a woman, that's the first thing. So wait, we write the same letter, we speak the same language. In this film, as far as I'm concerned, all the experiences I've had have merged. That's why it all together, it seems to me, turned out so strongly."
But Djuricic told RFE/RL she thinks one of the strengths of Quo Vadis, Aida? is its capturing of intensely personal struggles in wartime and the pain not only of the mothers of Srebrenica's victims but of "all the mothers who have lost."
"The pain is the same for me. To me, the pain is the same as any woman, from any part of the world," she said, citing the common feelings that accompany tragedy and loss anywhere. "This is, of course, close, because it's all ours, because it's the former country where we all lived together and it's all the stronger. But I can also absolutely feel the way a woman felt in Rwanda. It's all the same."
Quo Vadis, Aida? has already won BAFTA nominations for best film in a foreign language and best director for Zbanic.
The filmmaker, who survived the deadly 1992-96 siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, has acknowledged thinking for a long time about the need for movies about Srebrenica but feeling that "it shouldn't be me [to make one]."
Zbanic recalled the horror of watching the tragedy of Srebrenica helplessly in 1995 and being "so shocked by the fact that the United Nations [peacekeepers] could just give up...[and] just betray the people like that."
She changed her mind about getting involved after returning to Bosnia from abroad to establish an artists association and completing her fourth feature film, her much-awarded 2006 movie Grbavica about wartime atrocities against Bosniak women.
"The main problem then was not so much professional, because I felt ready," Zbanic told The Hollywood Reporter last month. "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."
Djuricic told RFE/RL that "art is the right way to communicate things" and that Zbanic and the entire project had to be "terribly smart and careful" to treat such a "painful point for the entire Balkans." She said she was "amazed at how much is not known about" Srebrenica and the lack of "any great interest in finding out anything about it."
"I have some hope that this film will be watched primarily by young people," Djuricic said. "I don't believe much in my generation. I'm afraid half of us are already hardened to one side or the other."
An alarming number of ethnic Serbs and their political and military establishments in the region continue to reject the account of the Srebrenica massacre established by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice.
U.S. journalist Peter Maass, who wrote a book in 1996 on his experiences covering the Bosnian War, welcomed the Oscar nomination for Quo Vadis, Aida? He contrasted it with what he said was the "shameful" awarding of the Nobel Prize for literature in 2019 to Austrian writer Peter Handke, whom critics regard as a "genocide denier" and who spoke at the 2006 funeral of Serbian wartime leader and accused war criminal Slobodan Milosevic.
Djuricic praised the tremendous exposure of Quo Vadis, Aida? as a contribution to educating new generations that confront historical deniers.
"Maybe it's good that everything is happening online now," she said. "Maybe [young people] will be braver to turn on that movie in the darkness of their room on their laptop, without either of their parents even knowing that they watched it, and maybe something like that raises in them at least a question: So wait, what really happened there?"