Making a Movie About a Genocide That Some Still Deny

For years, Jasmila Zbanic hoped someone else would dramatize the worst atrocity of the Balkan wars. Instead, she did so with “Quo Vadis, Aida?” and it has been nominated for an Oscar.

It took Jasmila Zbanic, seen here on set, a very long time to feel able to make “Quo Vadis, Aida?” Credit...Imrana Kapetanovic/Deblokada

LONDON — Jasmila Zbanic, a Bosnian film director, remembers the exact moment she heard something had gone horribly wrong in Srebrenica, a small town in her native country that was the site of the worst atrocity of the Balkan wars.

Those conflicts accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and in Bosnia — where Muslims and ethnic Serbs and Croats had long been living — people suddenly found themselves in an ethnic war.

In July 1995, the Bosnian-Serb army overran Srebrenica, meant to be a United Nations safe haven. Zbanic, then a student, learned the city had been attacked while staying in Vermont, having temporarily escaped the war for an internship at a theater.

It was a while before she learned that soldiers had separated around 8,000 Muslim men and boys from their families in the town, then murdered them. But she already knew the violence that was likely to ensue when the army took over a city.

“The world just collapsed completely for me,” Zbanic recalled, in a recent video interview. “The United Nations was supposed to protect the city, but not a single bullet was fired,” she said.

“What can you believe in when there are no rules?” she added. “It meant violence was winning.”

In the film, residents of Srebrenica seek safety. Super LTD

Jasna Djuricic stars as a United Nations translator.Credit...Super LTD

Over 25 years since the massacre, which some Serbian nationalists still deny was a genocide, Zbanic, 46, is bringing the world’s attention back to Srebrenica’s story with the film “Quo Vadis, Aida?” The movie follows Aida (Jasna Djuricic), a United Nations translator, as she makes increasingly desperate attempts to get U.N. soldiers to save her husband and sons from being murdered.

On Monday, “Quo Vadis, Aida?” was nominated for best international feature at the Academy Awards, building on similar success at the BAFTAs, Britain’s version of the Oscars, where Zbanic was nominated for best director. The film is available to rent on Amazon Video.

Zbanic was 17 when the Bosnian war began, she said. She had always wanted to be a director, having grown up next to a movie theater in Sarajevo, the nation’s capital, and studied filmmaking at the city’s film and theater academy throughout the war. Her classes there continued even though Sarajevo was under siege, meaning they rarely had electricity and she had to risk being shot by snipers whenever she left home. “Every time the electricity came on for a few days, we’d watch films like a crazy marathon,” she said.

Her early features were not about the war itself, instead focusing on its legacy. “Grbavica,” her debut, is about a woman who was raped during the war and is bringing up the child conceived in that assault. It won top prize at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival, marking her as one of Bosnia’s most prominent filmmakers. The later “For Those Who Can Tell No Tales” follows an Australian tourist who stays at a Bosnian spa, only to learn it was the site of war crimes.

She often thought about making a film about the Srebrenica massacre, Zbanic said, but really hoped someone else would first. “It was too much, emotionally,” she said.

Five years ago, she said she finally felt able to make it herself, including being able to deal with any potential criticism from nationalistic Serbian newspapers and politicians, in and outside Bosnia, some of whom deny the massacre was a genocide or play down its extent. Mladen Grujicic, the mayor of Srebrenica, is an ethnic Serb who has been accused of denying that the massacre was a genocide (Grujicic did not respond to an interview request for this article).