March 2022

Arts & Letters

Hidden pockets: ‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’ and ‘The House’

By Shane Danielsen
Jasmila Žbanić’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of the ethnic cleansing in Srebrenica, and an unsettling Netflix stop-motion animation anthology

Almost 18 months after premiering at the Venice Film Festival, and a full year after being nominated for best foreign film at the 2021 Academy Awards, Jasmila Žbanić’s drama Quo Vadis, Aida? has finally made it to Australian cinemas. But frustration at this delay shouldn’t overshadow the pleasure of its arrival; the film’s power, like the palpable anger that fuels it, is undiminished. It’s as gripping and as accomplished as anything you’re likely to see this year.

The year is 1995, and Aida Selmanagić, a Bosnian Muslim and a former schoolteacher, is working as a translator for the Dutch-run peacekeeping mission in Srebrenica. Though designated a safe zone by the United Nations, the majority-Muslim town is considered essential by Bosnian Serb forces for connecting the two halves of their planned ethnic Serbian Republic. It’s soon overrun by the Bosnian Serb Army, and its terrified inhabitants flee to the UN base seeking refuge, where their numbers quickly overwhelm the peacekeepers’ scant resources. A few thousand are permitted to shelter within the camp, in conditions that can only be described as dismal. The remainder – as many as 20,000 men, women and children – are left outside the gates, to await their fate.

Inside the camp, Aida learns to her horror that her husband and two sons have not made it inside the perimeter. And though, after more than three years of war, she knows what the enemy is capable of, she can also see the UN soldiers for what they are: under-resourced, badly outnumbered and obsessed with procedure to the point of active disregard. When the Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladić demands that representatives of the local population meet with him to negotiate the terms of their surrender, Aida nominates her husband Nihad, purely as a way of ensuring that he and their boys make it to safety. Their delegation is accompanied by the Dutch commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Karremans, whose name and conduct should live in infamy. 

What Mladić proposes will chill anyone even vaguely familiar with narratives of ethnic cleansing. Srebrenica is now his, he says, and though his troops have incurred losses, he won’t harm its inhabitants. Instead, he will transport them to the neighbouring town of Kladanj, where they will be safe. However, he adds, women and children will travel in one convoy of buses, men and boys in another. And Karremans, sensing that something is amiss, but too intimidated to say so, raises no objection.

While this is happening, a Bosnian Serb officer turns up at the gate to the UN compound, demanding that he and his men be let inside to search for “soldiers” they believe are hiding among the population. (There are shades here of one of my all-time favourite films, Miklós Jancsó’s The Round-Up.) And once again, the Dutch peacekeepers – many of whom look barely old enough to hold a rifle and who, in case the point needs driving home, are also wearing short trousers – are too terrified to stop him. 

By now, you’re watching with a mixture of horror and despair. We know how this story ends – with 8372 dead, mostly men and boys, their bodies dumped in anonymous mass graves – and events slide towards this outcome with a tragic sense of inevitability. But Žbanić’s smartest artistic decision is to zero in on the precise nexus between institutional and individual capability – that is, on the figure of Aida, who straddles two worlds, and her increasingly desperate attempts to keep her husband and children alive. Much of the film consists of her running desperately between makeshift offices, between the gate to the camp and the hall containing refugees, trying to find the right person to sign a permit, or the right machine to print a fake UN ID. Friends and former neighbours outside the gate beseech her for help; she barely glances in their direction. She knows there’s nothing she can do – there are too many of them and it’s already too late. Her attention is focused solely on ensuring the moment-to-moment survival of those closest to her.

Befitting the weight of its subject matter, this is by some measure one of the largest European productions in some time, the product of no less than 12 production companies across nine countries. And writer-director Žbanić, a Bosnian Muslim who won the Golden Bear at Berlin for her 2006 drama Grbavica, acquits herself extraordinarily well, handling the big set pieces – many of them involving hundreds of extras – with an assurance lacking in many high-profile Hollywood directors, while also excelling at the smaller, more intimate moments. (An encounter between Aida and one of her former students, now a swaggering thug in the Bosnian Serb army, is all the more chilling for its relative understatement.) 

But her greatest asset is lead actor Jasna Đuričić, herself a Serb, a mainstay of the country’s National Theatre, who imbues Aida with a passionate, steely conviction, even at her most powerless or desperate. It’s the kind of performance the Academy should reward, yet never bothers to notice. (Thankfully, the European Film Awards did pay attention, naming her Best Actress and Žbanić Best Director at last December’s ceremony.)

Above all, it’s worth remembering that these events – the worst massacre in Europe since the Nazi era – took place less than 27 years ago, and that the rest of the world simply let it happen. Because they were Muslims. Because the war had by that time been going on for years, and no one was really paying much attention any more. Because the former Yugoslavia is anyway a hidden pocket of the world (“The Balkans,” Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon once observed, “is just close enough to being Europe to keep perpetually failing at being Europe”), and Bosnia is among its least reported-upon regions. A story of personal as well as national catastrophe, it’s also a savage and clear-eyed indictment of institutional failure, one in which we all bear some responsibility – even if only for averting our eyes. The film’s inspired final images, in fact, explore precisely that idea, and offer a white-lipped repudiation of the axiom that, in order to survive, we must move on, and forget, and forgive. 


One of the unfortunate consequences of the streaming revolution is that more films are readily available than ever before, yet individual works often struggle even harder to find an audience. Call it the downside of abundance, or simply a consequence of exhaustion, and the restless, deflated feeling of scrolling through too many choices over too many platforms. A process that, too often, becomes an end in itself.

All of which is to say that, right now on Netflix, a small gem is hiding in plain sight. The House is a British production, a portmanteau film from Charlotte Bavasso and Christopher O’Reilly’s Nexus Studios. It brings together three teams of European animators to tell three half-hour stories, all set in the same house over a number of different eras, and all scripted by the Irish playwright Enda Walsh from ideas supplied by the filmmakers.

The first, by Belgians Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels, is set in what appears to be the final years of the 19th century. Shortly after being scorned by relatives for their penury, a rural family – a mother, father and two young daughters – is surprised by an offer from a famous architect: to move out of their modest cottage and into a newly constructed property nearby, far larger and more lavish than their old digs. Not only is the new house fully furnished, but all their meals will be provided for them – a deal which strikes only their oldest daughter (voiced by Mia Goth) as rather too good to be true. Sure enough, she soon discovers that they may not be alone in their new home.

The second story, by Sweden’s Niki Lindroth von Bahr, is set in the present day. An entire city – which may or may not be London – has now sprung up around the house, and its new owner, a mouse (voiced by former Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker), is preparing to open the property for inspection to interested buyers. He’s ploughed a ton of money into its renovation – enough, we soon learn, to ruin him should it fail to sell – and is consequently teetering on the verge of a nervous breakdown. What begins as black comedy soon turns satisfyingly nightmarish, first with an infestation of cockroaches, and later with the arrival of a strange couple who express a vague desire to purchase, but then refuse to discuss terms… or leave.

Finally, the closing chapter, directed by Paloma Baeza, is set in the future, in a drowned, post-apocalyptic world in which the house serves as both refuge and prison to those who inhabit it.

To say much more would be to diminish the disquieting spell this film casts. Of the three stories, the first is probably my favourite. It plays like a folktale, but one indebted to the domestic nightmares of Bruno Schulz or Julio Cortázar. It taps into the weird illogic of dreams – the house, here, is not a fixed thing, but unstable and ultimately irrational – and its strangeness is amplified by the design of the characters, who are fashioned from felt and at times look a little like the furry cocoons of moths. The second tale is more comical but also more horrific, a surreal comedy of (bad) manners that builds by slow stages to a genuinely horrifying climax. And the last is different again: melancholy, even despairing, a meditation on time and loss, and the impossibility, in a changing world, of holding on to the things you cherish most.

What’s clear is that the producers hit upon precisely the right medium to tell these stories. In a digital world, stop-motion animation is cherished for its patient, artisanal virtues, but what’s often overlooked is its unsettling quality. Something about the jerky movement of the figures, perhaps. The sense of manipulated time. But while discomforting, the result here is also magical and beguiling – and its omnibus format seems tailor-made to encourage further stories set in this small, strange world. I’m rarely eager for sequels, but this is one house I’d very much like to revisit.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

From the front page

Image of Joseph Engel and Sara Montpetit in Falcon Lake, directed by Charlotte Le Bon. Photo by Fred Gervais, courtesy of MK2 and Metafilms

Cannes Film Festival 2022 highlights: part one

Mia Hansen-Løve’s ‘One Fine Morning’, Charlotte Le Bon’s ‘Falcon Lake’ and Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s ‘Pamfir’ were bright spots in an otherwise underwhelming line-up

Image of a man updating a board showing a tally of votes during independent candidate Zoe Daniel’s reception for the 2022 federal election. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

The art of the teal

Amid the long decline of the major parties, have independents finally solved the problem of lopsided campaign financing laws?

Image of Monique Ryan and family on election night

The end of Liberal reign in Kooyong

At the Auburn Hotel on election night, hope coalesces around Monique Ryan

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

OnlyFans and the adults in the room

The emerging OnlyFans community offering training and support to adult-content creators

In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

The empathy deficit

The Morrison government’s negligence in aged care is having devastating effects

Still from ‘Severance’

‘Severance’

Apple TV+’s darkly comic satire takes the pursuit of a desirable work-life balance literally

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

House of the rising sum

COVID has not slowed Australia’s property crisis, with more people locked out of the housing market and more left homeless

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Rain on the rock

The spectacle of Uluru after a storm, and what it might symbolise


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Steve Toltz

The quip and the dead: Steve Toltz’s ‘Here Goes Nothing’

A bleakly satirical look at death and the afterlife from the wisecracking author of ‘A Fraction of the Whole’

Detail of cover of Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

Ghost notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

A virtuoso memoir of music and trauma, and his experiences as a child prodigy, from the acclaimed Australian pianist

Still from ‘Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood’

One small step: ‘Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood’ and ‘Deep Water’

Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped film evokes the optimism of late-1960s America, while Patricia Highsmith’s thriller gets another disappointing adaptation

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, ‘Dibirdibi country’ (2008

Art heist: The landmark conviction of an Aboriginal art centre’s manager

The jailing of Mornington Island Art’s chief executive for dishonest dealing has shone a light on ethics and colonialism in the Indigenous art world


More in Film

Still from ‘Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood’

One small step: ‘Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood’ and ‘Deep Water’

Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped film evokes the optimism of late-1960s America, while Patricia Highsmith’s thriller gets another disappointing adaptation

Publicity still from ‘The Duke’

Maturity breach: ‘The Duke’ and ‘Big Bug’

While Roger Michell’s final film pairs Jim Broadbent with Helen Mirren in a dignified, grown-up cinema, Jean-Pierre Jeunet returns with a juvenile sci-fi sex-comedy

Still image from ‘Spencer’

The princess and the pea soup: ‘Spencer’

Pablo Larraín’s laboured Princess Diana biopic is a future camp classic

Still from ‘No Time To Die’

The Bond market: ‘Dune’ and ‘No Time To Die’

Blockbuster season begins with a middling 007 and a must-see sci-fi epic


Online exclusives

Image of Joseph Engel and Sara Montpetit in Falcon Lake, directed by Charlotte Le Bon. Photo by Fred Gervais, courtesy of MK2 and Metafilms

Cannes Film Festival 2022 highlights: part one

Mia Hansen-Løve’s ‘One Fine Morning’, Charlotte Le Bon’s ‘Falcon Lake’ and Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s ‘Pamfir’ were bright spots in an otherwise underwhelming line-up

Image of a man updating a board showing a tally of votes during independent candidate Zoe Daniel’s reception for the 2022 federal election. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

The art of the teal

Amid the long decline of the major parties, have independents finally solved the problem of lopsided campaign financing laws?

Image of Monique Ryan and family on election night

The end of Liberal reign in Kooyong

At the Auburn Hotel on election night, hope coalesces around Monique Ryan

Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

The avoidable war

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history