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.”
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).
“I thought, ‘I know it’ll be a lot of garbage, but I’m ready for it,’” Zbanic said.
Making the film turned out to be a challenging experience for some of those involved. Aldijana Kaplan, 34, one of the film’s extras, said in an email she’d been kept in a concentration camp as a child during the war. When she signed up for “Quo Vadis, Aida?” she was just “attracted by the experience of working on a movie,” she said.
But while filming a scene in which Bosnian-Serb soldiers enter the United Nations compound and throw bread at desperate refugees, she broke down. “It reminded me of the same scene that happened when I was at the camp,” Kaplan said.
Zbanic said that wasn’t the only such moment. When filming a scene involving men being taken away in trucks, she was telling the cast what to do, when an extra interrupted. “He said, ‘No, that’s not the way they took us. This is how we should climb into the truck. This is what they were telling us,’” Zbanic said. He turned out to have been kept in a concentration camp for six months during the war.
“In Bosnia, this is still a very hot and painful topic,” the director said. “After 26 years, mothers are still searching for around 1,000 bodies.”
Djuricic, 54, who plays Aida, said she also found shooting one scene almost too much to bear, when she had to go and search for her children’s bones in a large hall in which dozens of piles of remains were laid out. “Everything felt so real: that space, the remains,” she said in a video interview. “It was the very last day of shooting and the crew was strangely silent on set,” she added.
Zbanic said so far, she has been pleasantly surprised by the reactions across the region, she said. A few Serbian newspapers had written negatively about the film, she said (Informer, a tabloid, called her “a hater of Serbs”). A handful of people also posted negative comments on film review sites like Google and IMDB questioning its accuracy (“Large misinformation, national hatred etc” reads a typical one).
But some surprising outlets had been positive about the film, Zbanic said. Ivona Janjic, writing on the website of the Serbian Film Center, a government-funded body, called it “easily one of the best regional films of recent years” and praised it for being made “without the usual national-nationalist colors.”
Zbanic was adamant the film is not about blame or revenge. “Serbia is not what their government is,” she said. “It never was.” She made the film, she said, because she wants to “share at least one percent of the pain” of mothers still looking for their children’s bodies, and because she also wants young people in the Balkans to see what really happened at Srebrenica so they can have more empathy with each one another and no longer be ethnically divided.
For the film’s premiere, she invited about 100 young people — Muslims and ethnic Serbs and Croats — to watch it at a memorial center in Srebrenica. “I cried the whole time when it was screened,” Sladjan Tomic, 25, a Bosnian-Serb journalist, said in an email, adding that it showed an honest view of what happened that he didn’t get as a child.
“Unfortunately, there is not much utility in this movie if my Serbian peers do not see it,” he said. But he held out some hope they might do so if it wins the Oscar.
Zbanic said the film’s message wasn’t just about Srebrenica. People need to discuss all genocides, she added, as that’s the only way to learn from them and ensure they never happen again.
“Are we are going to live with eyes closed or eyes open?” Zbanic said. “That’s the question.”