Jasmila Žbanić – the Bosnian director of the Oscar-nominated film Quo Vadis, Aida? – talks with Mateusz Demski about the female face of war, inheriting trauma, and making peace with the past.
Mateusz Demski: You dedicate Quo Vadis, Aida? to the women who lost their sons and husbands in the Srebrenica massacre. Why did you feel you had to tell their stories?
Jasmila Žbanić: I’ve been meeting with and listening to stories from many women for many years. I knew them even before I wanted to make this film. Personally, Srebrenica is very close to me and my video works. My graduation film was a documentary – Red Rubber Boots – about a mother searching for her four-year-old son and nine-month-old baby, who were killed and buried in a mass grave. She hopes to find, during the exhumation, the red rubber boots her son was wearing when he disappeared from her life… This pain and the injustice shaped me forever.
After that, I used to visit the Srebrenica Memorial Center. I’ve seen and heard a lot. I’ve met women who lost 40 members of their family: their sons, father, husband, grandfather, brothers, cousins. Three generations are gone. Bosnian Serb forces under the command of Ratko Mladić executed more than 8000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. It’s hard to imagine the loss of these women. The traumas are really deep and have not healed at all. But at the same time, I saw some unexpected power in these women.
What do you mean by ‘unexpected power’?
That the war was unable to break the most important thing in them: the will to fight and human dignity. The power of these women is so incredible. After all this tragedy, they have never asked for revenge. They never spoke a language of hate, they never said: “All Serbs are guilty.” Because Bosnian women know it’s not true. In fact, there are many organizations from Serbia who were helping them during the war. For example, Women in Black is an amazing Serbian organization of women who were protesting throughout the whole war in front of the Serbian parliament against nationalism and all forms of hatred and violence. So the women of Srebrenica know very well that the crimes were committed by war criminals, not Serbs. Today, 25 years later, Bosnian women have formed their own organizations to help each other. Even after such a tragedy, they are the ones who are promoting the idea of living together and loving each other, and trying to keep memories about women’s experiences in the war.
Svetlana Aleksievich wrote about that in the book War’s Unwomanly Face. She wrote about war seen through the eyes of women. Her message is: “These stories deserve to be heard. Women’s war has its own colours, its own smells, and its own range of feelings. Its own words.”
As a feminist, I see war as a male game. Everything we know about the war was created through the male gaze and position. We know only narratives of male power that were kept by men. I don’t see war that way. For me, war is this: a woman laying down, shot in the back, while soldiers are stealing her property. This is not what you learn in school. In school you hear about amazing victories, great military heroes and other bullshit. Narratives of wars are usually wrapped in decorations of state, freedom, democracy and justice, so that we don’t notice the truth behind the narrative. These decorations are just an excuse and cover for stealing and crime. We need narratives that show us what is hidden. We need to show stories from other perspectives, maybe not only from womens’ perspectives, but from the perspectives of unspoken witnesses of history.
What is your perspective? I know that you lived through the war in Bosnia, and the siege of Sarajevo, all 1425 days of it. What impact did that have on you?
I’m still traumatized by war, this is a feeling that I carry through life. If you are living three-and-a-half years under constant bombing, without food, electricity and heating, you cannot forget. I was 17 when the war started, and Sarajevo was under siege at the time. Everything was upside down. The whole city was stopped, there was no school, but our teachers organized some kind of classes for us and we were able to graduate high school. And then I enrolled in the academy of arts, in the theatre and film department. It was exciting and a little bit funny how everything functioned without electricity, cameras or equipment. But for me and my colleagues, it was something very important – it kept us sane through it all. In the siege, we quickly resumed normal activities that were not normal at all in the circumstances. We wanted to learn, do some cool stuff, fall in love and dream. Together with my friends, we discussed cinema and we imagined the films that each of us would make when the war was over. It was something beautiful in this madness.
Do you remember the first time you heard about Srebrenica?
At the very beginning, it was not clear what had happened. I heard from American friends that Srebrenica had been taken by the Serbian army. After a few hours I called my mum to tell her what had happened. She didn’t believe me, she told me: “No no no, it’s not possible, they would never allow that, don’t say that again…” There were no journalists in Srebrenica, information was coming very late and through very strange channels. We didn’t know what to believe, we slowly learned about it. And then we cried, all night and all day.
How did you feel?
It was a huge feeling of betrayal for me. Srebrenica was designated a UN safe zone for civilians and citizens. The forces stationed there were obligated to protect them at all costs, even if it meant the use of weapons. In the final report of the UN, I read that the Dutch soldiers didn’t fire a single bullet. They didn’t even try to save people, they just gave up without a fight. So this feeling of betrayal was very strong. I was 27 when I was asking myself What should I believe if violence can win over human rights and the army of all nations? This was something that hit me really deeply – the concept of the world I knew before and the values that I learned from my family were gone. I started to fear the world like never before.
The tragedy is that people believed that the UN peacekeeping forces stationed there would protect them. I don’t know if the UN ever took responsibility for the massacre.
The UN said that abandoning Srebrenica was a huge mistake. But I don’t see any changes in the structure of the UN. It’s a wonderful idea of an institution that unites us all, and I would love to see it stronger, better and more determined. The problem is that the UN is still so much influenced by political interests that have nothing to do with human rights. The sense of security, the trust in institutions like the UN, was lost. I think we haven’t learned anything. We say never again, but there’s nothing behind our words. If Srebrenica happened now in 2020, it would have the same outcome. Europe – or indeed the world – wouldn’t lift a finger. There is still a fear that in the middle of the continent a neighbour will start murdering his neighbour just because he’s praying to a different God or because he’s different. This terrifies me. Unfortunately, we are living in a worse condition as a civilization than 25 years ago, when Srebrenica happened.
Part of the unique horror of Srebrenica is the fact that among Serbian politicians there is still a huge tendency to deny, to hide, to create false facts.
The judgement in the Mladić case was brought in June, 26 years after Srebrenica. This is something that is very scary. Unfortunately, even now, after the war and the internal division of Bosnia, these crimes and fascist acts were rewarded. Bosnia is divided into two entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Republika Srpska. Srebrenica remained in the part of the country run by Bosnian Serbs. Our government has many right-wing politicians who are still denying the International Criminal Court’s decision that what happened in Srebrenica constitutes genocide. Mladić is still considered a hero, people still celebrate war criminals. I’m wondering why. He made so many people miserable, he made Serbs miserable. That part of Bosnia is still really poor. Nobody is happy except the 1% that profited from the war, who are now extremely rich. Aside from them, everyone is devastated and traumatized. For Serbian kids, it must be terrible to live in this poisonous environment where war criminals are celebrated.
But the film ends with an elementary school concert, as Aida and other survivors look after a new generation of innocent children. Maybe these children are the hope and the future of Europe.
I see options. As human beings, we always have hope, even in the most terrible situations. But at the same time, I see it’s very difficult to get out of this narrative. We still live in a very patriarchal society that promotes and glorifies violence. And the fascists are still around us. As I say, the children grow up in circumstances where war criminals are promoted and are idols. Kids learn that Srebrenica was “liberated by the Serbian army”, they live under the influence of a media that encourages them not to feel for Muslims. At the end of the film, I put this school concert and choreography of opening and closing eyes as some kind of option. They have the opportunity to open their eyes, face reality and move on. Or they could turn a blind eye and make the same mistake as their parents. I think that they need to know what happened, because without knowledge of the past, no-one can make the right conclusions about the present and plan for the future. Up until now, most of the energy has been invested in denial and it means that younger generations have no energy to do beautiful stuff for themselves.
You’re also a mother. Did you talk to your daughter about Srebrenica?
When Zoe was born, I tried not to poison her with many of my traumas. Of course, you cannot be successful in that because there are so many automatic and unconscious processes. We know from the time of World War II that trauma is transmitted to the next generation. I started showing my daughter what these memories meant to me, and she also started teaching me how to look at it differently today. Zoe was studying with a Serbian girl who was very nationalistic. They were living together, talking in the school halls and after a year they became best friends. So if we create an environment in Bosnia where the borders melt, it would be possible. I have never bought into this narrative that we had war because we hate each other. For me, it’s a lie and an excuse for profits. Politicians are still profiting from conflicts, which is why before every election they try to divide society.
In conclusion, allow me to give one more quote from Svetlana Alexievich: “Memories are terrible, but to forget about memories is even more terrible…” Do you feel that we need to tackle collective memory?
I think it’s important to research facts. A lot of facts after World War II in Yugoslavia were modified and hidden in order for General Tito to build a country with the idea of brotherhood and equality. In a way, I think it worked for many years, but when crisis happened it showed that it wasn’t the best way to do things. This is an example of how unity and collective memory cannot be built on lies.
The good thing about the conflict in the Balkans is that a lot of facts are being found – there is proof for every single crime. But the problem is that Serbian nationalists use fake news. So I think that collective memory can be dangerous if it’s based on fake facts. I think it is important to keep memory, in order to not repeat the same mistakes, but it’s very important not to create mythology or dishonest narratives. It’s really important to learn that we cannot use words if the facts have not been checked. This is a big challenge in today’s world, where so much information is manipulated.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Born in Sarajevo in 1974, Jasmila is a graduate of her native city’s Academy of Dramatic Arts, Theatre and Film Directing Department. Her feature debut Grbavica (2006) won the Golden Bear at the 56th Berlinale Film Festival, before going on to win awards at many other festivals. Her films have been screened around the world and have repeatedly spoken about the conflict in the Balkans, loss, memory and trauma. Most recently, her film Quo Vadis, Aida? (2020) was chosen by Bosnia and Herzegovina as their submission for Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards in 2021.
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