If a war movie focuses on the killing of civilians rather than the courage of soldiers, can it win an Academy Award? The conventional wisdom — “that’s improbable” — may be upended by a wrenching film about the genocide in Bosnia, “Quo Vadis, Aida?”
Hollywood and its American audiences typically love war movies in which soldiers are brave heroes or tragic victims, like “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Hurt Locker,” or “American Sniper.” Soldier-centered films appeal to America’s rapture for the muzzle side of warfare, what with our troops nearly always at war and some 800 military bases overseas. The side of war we can identify with, and have a political need to justify, is the combatant’s.
A nominee for best international feature film, “Quo Vadis, Aida?” focuses not simply on the Serbs who committed mass murder in Srebrenica in 1995 or the United Nations troops who allowed it to happen, but mainly on the Bosnian civilians who were the targets. The film’s protagonist is a fictional translator for the U.N., played by the brilliant Jasna Đjuričić, who tries to save her family from the carnage that she knows is coming. Written and directed by Jasmila Žbanić, who lived in Sarajevo during its siege by Serb forces in the 1990s, “Quo Vadis, Aida?” has earned a tremendous amount of acclaim and more than a half-dozen prizes at film festivals in Europe and the U.S.
All of this makes for a potentially stark moment at the Oscars ceremony next month.
In its category, Žbanić’s film runs second in most predictions to the Danish entry “Another Round,” which is about four men going through a midlife crisis. Of all the Oscar races, this may be the best one to gauge whether the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is serious about honoring the kinds of films that have been neglected in its long history — neglected due to the dominating preferences of its overwhelmingly white and male membership. “Quo Vadis, Aida?” is directed by a woman, primarily about a woman, and the war victims it portrays are Muslim.
In recent years, the Academy has made a highly publicized push to add women and people of color to its voting ranks so that the movies and actors it rewards are themselves more diverse; this has been the overdue power of the #OscarsSoWhite movement. Theoretically, this should mean that “Another Round” will not have an unwarranted advantage when votes are counted, even though there’s still a lot of progress to be made in the Academy’s membership.
“Another Round” is a charming movie about Martin, Tommy, Peter, and Nikolaj, who decide to drink during the day to break out of their routinized behavior and depressed moods at the school where they teach. Boozing helps for a bit, but the results aren’t great in the long run (surprise). The film delivers the warmth that viewers tend to appreciate, and it has a rambunctious final scene. It also has a somewhat famous director, Thomas Vinterberg, and a lead actor, the superb Mads Mikkelsen, who is known in the U.S. for his TV work in “Hannibal.”
I can understand why it’s the front-runner. What’s not to love in a film about four straight white men in their middle ages, directed by a man, with no female character of significance, and lots of Danish modern furniture? I say that with a crooked grin because I honestly enjoyed the film, but I’m in its demographic. What’s arguably also true, as film critic Claudia Puig observed, is that it’s another “banal story of middle-age ennui.”
By choosing to nominate this film from Bosnia, the Academy has brought itself to the precipice of doing something that is right and courageous.
Therein lies the Academy’s challenge.
It’s not just that “Quo Vadis, Aida?” avoids patriotic notions of war as a cauldron in which soldiers touch the limits of masculine endurance and brotherhood. The demographics of its makers, cast, and characters are the opposite of Oscar bait, especially against a betting favorite that caters to sensibilities that have been favored since forever. But by choosing to nominate this film from Bosnia, the Academy has brought itself to the precipice of doing something that is right and courageous.
I covered the war in Bosnia, and everything in Žbanić’s movie reflects what happened in Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 Muslims were massacred, and throughout the war: the civilian essence of wartime casualties, the caught-in-a-vise dilemma of families with no way out, the courage of noncombatants, and the cowardice of Serb forces as well as U.N. commanders. Conventional storylines are overturned. It’s not soldiers but their civilian targets who possess the qualities of dignity and love. We finally are hearing not just about the people who suffer the most in war, but from them, directly.
“So far, the story of Srebrenica has been told by courts, a few academics (some more, some less well-meaning), and the media,” wrote Emir Suljagić, one of the U.N.’s translators in Srebrenica, who now oversees the Srebrenica Memorial Center. “We, the survivors of the Bosnian genocide, have barely begun to tell our story.”
I wrote a book about the genocide a generation ago, when the people of Bosnia were at their lowest moment and had little access to the culture industry that lay outside their ripped-apart homeland. One of the rewards of time’s passage is the ability to see a nation’s history finally get the narrators it deserves and that the rest of us need. “Quo Vadis, Aida?” consists of a survivor telling the story of survivors in a gripping 102-minute film that fills you with horror and shame until, in its final moments, it delivers an indecipherable sliver of what might be hope.
It is the kind of movie that cannot be forgotten once you have seen it. The choice that faces the Academy should be an easy one.