Witnessing Women: Quo Vadis, Cinema?

In: Studies in World Cinema
Dijana JelačaPhD; Lecturer, Film Department, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, New York City, NY, USA,

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The essay explores how two women filmmakers, each deploying her unique vision through the perspective of a female protagonist, stage a transformative encounter with the act of bearing witness to genocide. The Diary of Diana B. (Dnevnik Diane Budisavljević, 2019, Croatia) directed by Dana Budisavljević, and Quo Vadis, Aida? (2020, Bosnia-Herzegovina), directed by Jasmila Žbanić, both compel us to bear witness to mass atrocities while avoiding the pitfalls of turning suffering into a spectacle, and by sidestepping the predictable cinematic conventions of redemption and closure, both formally and narratively. In my analysis of the films as anti-spectacles through the framework of Trinh T. Minh-ha’s ‘speaking nearby’, I argue for the concept of ‘women’s world cinema’, a kind of cinema that is made by women, speaks to women’s experiences, and/or addresses the spectator as female while also speaking nearby instead of about its subjects in ways that eschew conventional spectatorial alignments and co-optations of traumatic experience.


The essay explores how two women filmmakers, each deploying her unique vision through the perspective of a female protagonist, stage a transformative encounter with the act of bearing witness to genocide. The Diary of Diana B. (Dnevnik Diane Budisavljević, 2019, Croatia) directed by Dana Budisavljević, and Quo Vadis, Aida? (2020, Bosnia-Herzegovina), directed by Jasmila Žbanić, both compel us to bear witness to mass atrocities while avoiding the pitfalls of turning suffering into a spectacle, and by sidestepping the predictable cinematic conventions of redemption and closure, both formally and narratively. In my analysis of the films as anti-spectacles through the framework of Trinh T. Minh-ha’s ‘speaking nearby’, I argue for the concept of ‘women’s world cinema’, a kind of cinema that is made by women, speaks to women’s experiences, and/or addresses the spectator as female while also speaking nearby instead of about its subjects in ways that eschew conventional spectatorial alignments and co-optations of traumatic experience.

How women’s cinema can avoid conventional narratives and visual trappings of redemption and closure when addressing mass death is one of the central considerations of this essay, in which I analyze the approach of speaking nearby inexplicable trauma through a female perspective. What we mean by the word ‘trauma’ appears at once to be self-evident and impossible to adequately define, due to the very nature of the overwhelming event that it stands for.1 In writing about trauma’s modes of (in)expressability, Lauren Berlant poses a probing question: “When scenes of post-traumatic ineloquence morph into modes of transformative-style rhetoric, does the eloquent form distract from, become a mask for, or intensify the unreachable or inarticulable thought that wants to change the norms of negation?” (2001: 41). There is, of course, no simple or unifying answer to this question, particularly when it comes to mass atrocities such as genocide, a crime against humanity, that is at the center of the two films I discuss in some detail here. I explore how two women filmmakers, each deploying her unique vision through the perspective of a female protagonist, stage a transformative encounter with the act of bearing witness to genocide, intensifying what Berlant refers to as that “unreachable or inarticulable thought” in the process (2001: 41). The geopolitical context is former Yugoslavia, and the films in question are The Diary of Diana B. (Dnevnik Diane Budisavljević, 2019, Croatia) directed by Dana Budisavljević, and Quo Vadis, Aida? (2020, Bosnia-Herzegovina), directed by Jasmila Žbanić. The themes of both films are something that I have intellectually wrestled with previously – regarding the pain of others through cinema in the aftermath of Yugoslavia’s violent disintegration, and considering the broader question of cinema’s (in)ability to bear witness to unspeakable atrocities and traumas (Jelača, 2016).

Regarding genocide, Hannah Arendt has stated that: “There are no parallels to the life in the concentration camps. Its horror can never be fully embraced by the imagination for the very reason that it stands outside of life and death” (1968: 142).2 If there are no parallels to life in concentration camps because the horror stands “outside of life and death,” then we can also infer that there are no parallels to death in concentration camps. How do we imagine that which is at once outside of the realm of imagination, but also real in the most extreme traumatic sense? The Diary of Diana B. and Quo Vadis, Aida? use various modes of narrative and formal cinematic expressivity in order to render themselves transformative in ways that do not re-negate the inarticulable, while also avoiding the pitfalls of becoming what Berlant calls “masks for” or a “distraction from” such thought (Berlant, 2001: 41). Before I turn to a detailed discussion of the two films, and of what I will argue are their engaged performances of feminist, antifascist historiography that exemplify what I will call ‘women’s world cinema’, I want to place both of their writers-directors within the robust and polyvocal landscape of women filmmakers in what we call world cinema more generally. I particularly want to place them alongside those directors who have shown a deep dedication, and a keen, empathetic eye, towards tackling enormously difficult themes of collective trauma, dispossession, precarity and systematic oppression each in their own cultural, social, political, and geographic contexts – filmmakers such as Alanis Obomsawin, Samira Makhmalbaf, and Nadine Labaki, Safi Faye, Tracey Moffatt, and Rungano Nyoni, to name just a few. And while these filmmakers may have little in common other than being female-identified, it is important to continue to give prominence to them as women filmmakers, not as a way to essentialize either womanhood or female filmmaking, but rather because women continue to be a significantly underrepresented presence behind the camera around the globe. It is therefore of utmost strategic importance to continue mapping the clusters and constellations of women’s work behind the camera across real and imagined borders, while avoiding the pitfalls of generalizations and stereotyping about women, or about what we refer to as world cinema writ large. And while each of the abovementioned filmmakers tackles historically and geographically situated issues, those circumstances and localities are never fully detached from the uneven and ever-fraught transnational circuits of power, politics, (in)visibility, and the material realities of cultural production alike, which is another reason why we cannot leave ‘the world’ fully out of sight when looking at locally specific issues.3

The director of Quo Vadis, Aida?, Bosnia’s Jasmila Žbanić, has already been firmly established as an important voice within the landscape of women filmmakers of world cinema by many feminist films scholars (see White, 2015; Hole and Jelača, 2019). After making poignant documentaries in her early directing days, her narrative feature debut Grbavica (2006, in English sometimes translated as Esma’s Secret) propelled her to the status of an internationally lauded filmmaker when it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival (this example yet again reaffirms the importance of international film festivals for launching and supporting the careers of women filmmakers globally). Grbavica was the first prominent local film made in the aftermath of the Bosnian war to focus on the war crimes of mass rape, to which tens of thousands of mostly Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) women were subjected during the conflict. The film broke the cycle of silence and implicit shame around the issue, and brought forth a visceral portrayal of female survival, resilience, and complicated emotional life in the aftermath of unspoken trauma. Nearly all of Žbanić’s films since Grbavica have continued to acknowledge the traumas and suffering of others, frequently bearing witness to atrocities that the perpetrators continue to deny, such as in her docudrama For Those Who Can Tell No Tales (2011). Her unflinching insistence that cinema bear witness to what may appear as inexpressibly traumatic reaches its peak with Quo Vadis, Aida?, in which Žbanić dramatizes the single worst atrocity of the Bosnian war – the Srebrenica genocide, which took place in July 1995, and during which Bosnian Serb forces rounded up the Bosniak residents of the town of Srebrenica and its surroundings and executed more than 8,000 boys and men over the course of three days. This event, which right-wing Serbs deny ever happened, is still an open wound in Bosnia and the region, and some of the victims’ bodies are yet to be recovered.

The film was several years in the making, and in the process, expectations and pressure from many corners rose to a fever pitch. Its director and screenwriter carried the weight of the world on her shoulders: how to depict such a mass atrocity in a way that honors the victims and survivors, stays true to historical facts, does not inadvertently contribute to the ongoing ethno-nationalist politicking around mass death, while also allowing for the filmmaker’s creative freedom? When it comes to such an a priori politically charged film that everyone in the region of the former Yugoslavia appeared to have an opinion about before it was even completed, its reception is noteworthy. After premiering at the Venice Film Festival and having its first Bosnian screening at the Srebrenica Memorial Center in Potočari, the film was distributed regionally and internationally, and met with near-universal acclaim and praise, including in Serbia (right-wing Serbian media being the one loud exception), culminating in nominations for two baftas, an American Academy Award for Best International Film, as well as European Academy film awards for Best Film, Best Director and Best Actress. International recognition and critical acclaim confirm that Žbanić is one of the world’s most important contemporary filmmakers, but the film’s most powerful impact undoubtedly lies in the fact that it managed the nearly inconceivable – it conveyed the horror of mass atrocity without making a spectacle out of death and suffering, without subjecting the traumas of the victims and survivors to an exploitative gaze, and by sidestepping the still ongoing politicization of the region’s war traumas towards ethno-nationalist ends.

In contradistinction to Žbanić’s by now veteran filmmaking status, The Diary of Diana B. is Dana Budisavljević’s narrative feature debut. Yet, she too tackles the seemingly impossible: the genocide committed during World War ii in the Independent State of Croatia (ndh), by the Croatian Nazis known as Ustashas, against the local Jewish, Serbian, and Roma populations, and against the communist partisan resistance fighters. The Ustashas established a number of concentration camps in their collaborationist Nazi puppet state, the most notorious of them being Jasenovac and Stara Gradiška. Today, many right-wing Croatians either downplay the number of victims of Croatia’s fascist regime, or deny the genocide altogether, while some key Ustasha figures have been rehabilitated in the Croatian nation state that was formed after the disintegration of socialist Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Just like Quo vadis, Aida?, Dana Budisavljević’s film therefore emerges in a tense political context. At a moment in time that sees an alarming reemergence of fascism, the historical events depicted in the two films are not disconnected in the national(ist) imaginaries of the ethno-national groups involved. In the 1990s, right-wing Serbs instrumentalized the memory of the Serbian victims of wwii, often using it as a way to justify their atrocity-infused warpath against non-Serbs. More recently, such appropriation of the Serbian wwii victims of fascist genocide occurred via another movie: Serbia’s state-sponsored and aggressively promoted Dara of Jasenovac (Predrag Antonijević, 2020), the country’s official entry for the Oscars. Dara of Jasenovac is a fictional account of a young Bosnian Serb girl’s ordeal as she finds herself and her family captured in the infamous Jasenovac camp. Through its relentless use of graphic depictions of brutal death, torture and other near-unthinkable forms of human cruelty, the film turns genocide into an exploitative spectacle, in which the shock value of sensationalizing images of concentration camp horrors takes precedence over a more affectively probing spectatorial engagement that might invite reflection on what it means to bear witness to unbearable brutalities.4 In its depiction of the same genocide, Dana Budisavljević’s The Diary of Diana B. does the near-opposite, as I will explain below.

On Bearing Witness and Being Seen by Women’s Cinema

Budisavljević’s The Diary of Diana B. and Žbanić’s Quo Vadis, Aida? depict historical events that effectively bookend the existence of socialist Yugoslavia. The former is about events that took place during wwii and the antifascist struggle that gave rise to the multiethnic socialist country; the latter is about the violence that took place in a series of interethnic conflicts which marked the country’s end. Žbanić and Budisavljević are far from being the only post-Yugoslav women filmmakers to tackle the themes of war, trauma, loss and denial in provocative ways. Bosnia’s Aida Begić has made intricately insightful films about women’s postwar experiences in the aftermath of tragic loss and dispossession (Snow [2008], The Children of Sarajevo [2011]), while the iconic regional actress Mirjana Karanović made her directorial debut with A Good Wife (2016, Serbia), about a Serbian housewife who discovers that her beloved husband, a seemingly gentle family man, committed horrific war crimes during the Bosnian war (Karanović co-wrote the screenplay as well). When asked what compelled her to turn to directing, Karanović said that she had to make this film because no filmmaker in Serbia would tackle the theme of Serbian war crimes (personal correspondence).5 There are other notable examples, such as the insightful film works of multi-media artist Šejla Kamerić, as well as the latest documentary by Marta Popivoda, Landscapes of Resistance (2021), about a wwii woman fighter who organized a resistance while interned in Auschwitz. While acknowledging the diversity of approaches amongst them, these films attest to the fact that in the post-Yugoslav context, female directors have demonstrated a firm tendency to explore the war’s unseen faces and experiences, particularly those of women, thus pushing against the standard tropes of war films that predominantly focus on male soldier trauma and wounded masculinities.

The films discussed here have at their affective epicenters an entrapment of human beings into manmade structures that become the sites of pre-planned and meticulously orchestrated mass murder. Attempting to convey or represent the experience of a concentration camp in its aftermath has been the subject of intellectual, ethical, and artistic debate for some time now. From whose perspective can the camp be conjured up if those who experienced the full extent of its horrors are dead? Should survivors be burdened with ‘translating’ the experience of the horrors in ways intelligible to those who were not there? Or should a retroactive representation adopt the perpetrators’ perspective, perhaps in order to convey that mass atrocity is not some alien occurrence, but rather entirely and unequivocally committed by humans?

There are numerous films that attempt each of these and many other approaches. It is difficult to speak of ‘definitive’ moving image accounts of the Holocaust, because ‘definitive’ conveys a sense that there is nothing left to be said. On the contrary, there is always more to be said about a mass atrocity such as genocide, just as there are aspects that will never be entirely conveyable, expressible, or comprehensible. Through their accounts of the Holocaust, a number of canonized films have, however, made a deep imprint, amounting to something akin to a collective prosthetic memory. From the provocative and self-reflexive works of Alain Resnais (Night and Fog [1956], Hiroshima Mon Amour [1959]) and Claude Lanzmann (Shoah [1985]), to more conventional dramas such as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002), Alan J. Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice (1982), or Roberto Benigni’s tragicomedy Life Is Beautiful (1997), male directors have (perhaps unsurprisingly given the globally male-dominated industry) been at the forefront of attention when it comes to navigating and experimenting on how genocide and concentration camps can be rendered cinematically.

With the potential exception of Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974) – that gained some fame, predominantly for its notoriety – female-directed films that depict some version of the concentration camp experience and/or genocide survival have been given less prominence outside feminist film scholarship and the specific focus on women’s cinema. While broadly overlooked, women’s film work on these themes is, however, neither uncommon nor somehow inferior. Soviet film pioneer Elizaveta Svilova, for instance, made history when she filmed the Red Army entering Auschwitz, with the devastating footage she captured subsequently presented in two documentaries: Auschwitz (1946) and Fascist Atrocities (1946). Just three years after the end of the war, with The Last Stage (1948) Poland’s Wanda Jakubowska (herself a former Auschwitz inmate) made a poignant drama that focuses on the horrifying experiences of female prisoners in Auschwitz, the interned women representing many oppressed groups – Jewish, Polish, Russian, Roma, and communist. Two other women directors also dealt with the themes of war, concentration camps, and survival, albeit within very different cinematic registers: Lina Wertmüller in Seven Beauties (1975), and Chantal Akerman in many of her experimental, autobiographical films that are haunted by her mother’s Auschwitz experience, including Akerman’s final film, the documentary No Home Movie (2015). On the theme of mass persecutions in more contemporary conflicts, one can single out Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards (2000, Iran) and Ahu Öztürk’s Dust Cloth (2015, Turkey) – both of them about the persecution and discrimination of Kurds – or the films of the Palestinian director Najwa Najjar, which focus on the ongoing plight of the Palestinians. Likewise, Waad Al-Kateab’s camera captures her intimate first-hand experiences and emotional struggles during the Syrian war in For Sama (co-directed with Edward Watts, 2019, UK/Syria/US) with devastating clarity and determination. These films are as diverse and different from one another as works of cinema can be, testifying to the open-ended multiplicity of possible approaches to the overarching themes of conflict, war, and trauma, as well as to the heterogeneity of women’s film work more broadly. Yet, within the dominant discourses about cinema and mass persecutions of peoples, none of these female-directed films are considered to be as ‘authoritative’ as their male counterparts’, attesting to the still prevalent patriarchal order within which we intellectually and culturally situate and classify filmmaking and film history as such.

This makes it all the more remarkable that The Diary of Diana B. won the award for best film at Croatia’s most important national film festival in Pula, taking the prize over the nationalist film General (2019), directed by one of the country’s veteran (and most right-wing) directors, Antun Vrdoljak. Even in a political climate dominated by right-wing politics and rehabilitation and revisionism of Croatia’s wwii fascist legacy, the cultural powers in place decided to bestow the country’s highest film honor to an emerging female director’s probing film about the genocide committed by Croatia’s Ustashas. The main part of the film is based on the eponymous diary of Diana Budisavljević,6 in which she painstakingly chronicles her efforts to first send relief supplies to the Serbian women and children interned in the camps, and eventually mount an operation to save the children from ndh’s death camps, efforts that she collectively refers to as ‘The Action.’ The film’s opening title quotes from the diary and overtly comments on the process of bearing witness: “The knowledge of such immense suffering could only be borne by throwing ourselves even further into the demanding work that lay ahead of us.” Diana and her associates’ answer to witnessing mass atrocity was to act, in order to avoid surrendering to paralysis or hopelessness. In many ways, this opening quote is also a self-reflexive comment on the film itself – its director, crew, and actors bear witness to the immense suffering by throwing themselves into the demanding work of making a film that historicizes one woman’s antifascist, humanitarian efforts which resulted in more than 10,000 children being rescued.

At the same time, the film avoids the pitfalls of a conventional redemptive story of rescue, as the rendering of Diana’s feat neither neutralizes the sheer magnitude of the suffering, nor ignores the excruciating deaths of the thousands of women and children who did perish in the camps. This is not a hagiographic portrayal of Diana – she is not depicted as a larger-than-life heroine. Rather, she is an ordinary civilian, a physically frail, soft-spoken woman, and perhaps it was precisely her unimposing presence that made it possible for her to bypass the Ustasha authorities’ firm determination to exterminate all camp prisoners. It can be assumed that her appearance as an apolitical housewife, moreover an upper-class one, in no small measure helped her when it came to gaining official entry into the camps and obtaining permission to document and save thousands of children from almost certain death. Diana’s privileged socio-economic position is an important factor. An upper-class Austrian Catholic herself, she was married to a Croatian Serb, a widely respected surgeon and chief physician in a Zagreb hospital, which elevated him, in class-based terms, above the predominantly rural wwii Serbian victims of the Nazi genocide. This class component is not overtly examined in the film, but it is evident that Diana’s connections, access, and social influence are instrumental in her ability to mount the relief and rescue campaign.

Diana Budisavljević was certainly not the only person in ndh and the region to fight the fascist regime by any means necessary, be it through covert resistance movements or direct military action. In fact, many women actively participated in various forms of civilian and/or military antifascist resistance during the Yugoslav People’s Liberation Struggle (nob). In what could potentially be seen as a flaw, the film does not place Diana within this broader network of resistance efforts and instead depicts her as a lone actor with a handful of trusted helpers and aides. At the same time, however, the film emphasizes how such a fight can indeed be isolating when the majority either actively supports the regime or enables it by looking the other way. Importantly, in the process of mounting her expanding mission, Diana manages to get help from a network of close friends and acquaintances as well as anonymous donors and several influential people, some of them actively involved in the Nazi regime – from German officers to military doctors. It is also important to acknowledge the thousands of Croatian families who took the rescued children into foster care or sometimes, if the children’s identities were unknown or their families perished, permanently adopted them. Yet, the seemingly mass enthusiastic support of the Nazi regime is overtly conveyed as the context of Diana’s humanitarian work by the film’s use of archival footage that shows thousands of Zagreb residents cheerfully welcoming fascist troops into their city and giving the Nazi salute.

The Diary of Diana B. is not a straightforward fictional rendering of Diana’s story. The reenactments of the events recorded in her diary – she is played by Croatia’s preeminent actress Alma Prica who quotes from the diary in voice-over – are punctuated in a film-collage manner by two other modes of cinematic representation: the aforementioned archival footage, and, crucially, present-day documentary testimonials of some of those children who survived the death camps, and who are now elderly individuals. These testimonials are some of the film’s most affecting and poignant sequences: how does one recall, articulate or ‘translate’ their experience of a concentration camp, let alone from a childhood memory point of view? What does it mean to survive such horror and, crucially in this context, what is the role of cinema and the moving image when it comes to witnessing and historicizing against current political revisionism? As is often the case when it comes to trauma, the most devastating emotional truths are in the cracks, in what is left unspoken – in the ineloquence, silences and gaps where both language and image break down.

Vicky Lebeau has written that in cinema, “it is a recurring theme: children and childhoods as forever fading within, falling between, the words that might attempt to describe them” (2008: 16). Since words often fail, Lebeau suggests, “cinema, with its privileged access to the perceptual, its visual and aural richness, would seem to have the advantage: closer to perception, it can come closer to the child” (16). This is evident in The Diary of Diana B., where the survivors’ testimonials frequently privilege the senses. One elderly woman walks through the grounds of Lobor-grad, a castle-turned-concentration camp during wwii, where she was interned at the age of six. She recalls being in awe when she first walked in – this was the first time she saw a castle, a mythical site of a child’s wonder. “It seemed a lot bigger then,” she remarks. “Although it was a concentration camp, at first sight we thought it was magnificent.” Her focus on the beauty of the place makes this former child prisoner’s testimony even more devastating in its recall of childhood trauma through the focus on a child’s visual awe. Similarly, a male survivor marvels at the tall trees that have grown on the former camp grounds where he was interned as a child. He recalls the indelible smell of the grapes he ate once he was placed with a caring foster family. Another woman survivor talks about the youngest children, the ones who “couldn’t even speak.” They were the ones who would most often die, she notes. Who can speak for them? She turns to the crumbling camp walls, paint peeling off: “If this wall and this paint could talk about what happened here…. You’d hear such stories…..” Her voice trails off because the walls will not talk and the stories of those who “could not even speak” will not be heard, leaving in their wake an insurmountable void. Trauma’s ineloquence becomes even more pronounced when it is an experience of those who had not yet acquired the ability to speak. Sidestepping conventional narrative means of filling the void, the film instead makes the spectator face it directly.

The children who did survive are forced to live with the many layers of irrecuperable loss, of which their frequent silences speak loudly. Some were too young to know their own names, their identities before internment often forever lost. The film, in fact, starts with one such loss of identity – a male survivor’s voice says “My name is Živko.” (The lexical root of his name, živ, means ‘alive’ in Serbo-Croatian). He continues: “When I was born I don’t know. Where I was born I don’t know. Just as I don’t know who my parents were.” He also states that he does not recall the camp at all. The imagery accompanying his story echoes these voids – he is paddling down a river on a foggy day, the image as fluid and blurry as his memory. Further emphasizing the void, the camera lingers on the surface of the river in silence, with only the water’s flow audible. It is a moment of reflection that also acts as a reminder that many camp victims were thrown into nearby rivers to drown, or their dead bodies were disposed of there. The steady flow of death.

The reenactments and testimonials are filmed in black and white, visually matching the archival footage, albeit with a softer focus. For the most part, the archival footage is shown in slow motion and without sound (aside from Diana’s occasional voice-over narration), emphasizing its eeriness and the sense of dread it evokes. The footage of the children in the camp (in Diana’s diary identified as the Stara Gradiška camp) comprises the film’s most harrowing sequences, as when children are seen lining up to be registered by Diana and her aides, many of them looking straight into the camera with a mix of fear, trepidation and curiosity. Several children, including a girl who leans in so she can be seen – or so she can see the camera – smile shyly at the camera, in yet another instance of the incommensurability between the enveloping manmade horror of a concentration camp, and a child’s point of view (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1
Figure 1

Archival footage of children in the concentration camp lined up to be registered for Diana Budisavljević’s rescue operation, in The Diary of Diana B. Frame grab.

Citation: Studies in World Cinema 1, 2 (2021) ; 10.1163/26659891-bja10003

Figure 2
Figure 2

Archival footage shows a young girl in the camp giving a shy and inquisitive smile to the camera, in The Diary of Diana B. Frame grab.

Citation: Studies in World Cinema 1, 2 (2021) ; 10.1163/26659891-bja10003

Harkening back to those who “couldn’t even speak,” the archival images from the camp’s so-called ‘children’s hospital’ show rows of very small children lying on the floor, so ill that they were simply left there to die. As Diana describes this scene in her diary, “One could already sense death in every child’s eyes” (2003: 71, emphasis mine). How does one begin to even see such images? What does it mean to apprehend and bear witness to them?7 In fact, in more ways than one, they watch us rather than the reverse. To echo Serge Daney’s reaction to seeing Resnais’ Night and Fog, they amount to a “[s]trange baptism of images: understanding at the same time that the camps were real and that the film was just. And understanding that cinema (alone?) was capable of approaching the limits of a denatured humanity” (2004, emphasis in the text). He adds: “The dead bodies of Night and Fog and two years later those in the first frames of Hiroshima mon amour are among those ‘things’ that have watched me more than I have seen them.” The harrowing sequences of the dying toddlers in The Diary of Diana B. similarly approach the limits of a denatured humanity in the way in which they are at once unimaginable and undeniable. At the same time, they are a glimpse rather than a sustained spectacle. Framed by Diana’s narration, her gaze, and, by extension, the spectator’s, is not supposed to be there; these deaths were meant to remain hidden, from Diana and from us. These glimpses of the young children’s deaths are therefore fleeting and stolen. Rather than embodying an objectifying gaze that turns suffering into a spectacle, they evoke a bearing witness that Trinh T. Minh-ha has called speaking nearby – or, in this case, seeing nearby. In Trinh T. Minh-ha’s own words, this form of witnessing is “[a] speaking that reflects on itself and can come very close to a subject without, however, seizing or claiming it” (as quoted in Chen, 1992: 87, emphasis mine). Coupled with the footage, Diana’s voice-over brings us close(r) to the children. Their suffering, however, remains out of reach, unclaimable. Not only do these images watch us, they also haunt us with the question of what it means to bear witness to the unbearable, conveyed through a series of stolen glances. What is to be done with this act of witnessing when our primordial drive prevents us from fully accessing the notion of a child’s death (Leclaire, 1998), let alone the death of a child in a concentration camp?

The sequence of the dying children ends in an abrupt cut to a crumbling wall, accompanied by the aforementioned survivor’s commentary: “If this wall and this paint could talk about what happened here….” The woman’s hand brushes the paint that is peeling off, as if to entice this physical object to speak after all. It doesn’t. We are left to stare into the void. When the film, in its final few minutes, returns to Živko, the survivor who was too young to remember who his family was or where he came from, he is holding onto a physical object – a string with a pendant that he wore around his neck while in the camp. The pendant carries the number 1128. “This number is the only thing I have left from my earliest childhood. In fact, that was my last name. Živko 1128,” he says. The number acts as a symbolic stand in for all the irrecuperable voids, and for all the words that fail to adequately name the horrors experienced.

At the end of the film, the liberation troops enter Zagreb and another sequence of archival footage shows citizens apparently as happy to welcome the antifascists as they were with regard to the fascists a few years earlier. Diana finds herself at odds with the new socialist authorities who seize her database of the rescued children’s names and locations. This is a conflict between an individual and state bureaucracy, but also, more specifically, between an upper-class woman and a socialist system aiming to dismantle bourgeois privileges and class hierarchies. In her diary, Diana does not lament turning over her database, but rather the fact that it will henceforth be in the hands of bureaucrats who, she assumes, will not be able to interpret all its intricacies and are, therefore, apt to forfeit the chance of reuniting the surviving children with their parents (if still alive). A woman’s antifascist, humanitarian work seems to be swiftly appropriated by the state without much acknowledgement of her efforts. Diana’s diary does, however, end on a note in which she describes being contacted in 1947 by The Women’s Antifascist Front (Antifašistički front žena, or afž), Yugoslavia’s official state body which focused on the rights of women and children. This brief diary entry describes how the organization asked for a detailed report about Diana’s wartime efforts. She confirms that she sent them the report. In this way, she becomes tangentially connected to the broader network of women’s antifascist fight, even though her contributions were not officially recognized in the intervening decades. As Nataša Mataušić observes in her analysis of why Diana’s name remained largely unknown after the war, “From the perspective of the [socialist] authorities at the time, she was ‘a bourgeois’ from a high civil society, an Austrian, a co-worker and ‘a friend’ with the enemy that occupied the country” (2016: 76). In other words, those very factors that contributed to her being able to mount her ‘Action’ now worked against her and led to the erasure of Diana’s name – but not her achievements. In fact, her feat was taken over by the state in a way that erased the specificity of a woman-led ‘Action’ – her foundational role in rescuing the children remained largely obscure until her granddaughter published Diana’s diary in 2003. As the release of Dana Budisavljević’s film in 2019 has contributed to making Diana’s name and her tireless wartime efforts more widely known, it is important to recognize the (still potentially unique, to echo Daney) power of cinema to bear witness to the outer limits of (in)humanity, but also the role it can play with regard to feminist historiography in helping to rescue and recognize a woman’s antifascist action.

The Unseen that Watches Us: Atrocity as Anti-Spectacle

Screens are not neutral; what they frame – or leave out of sight – does not exist in a vacuum. The “still potentially unique” power of cinema to bear witness is something that needs further reflection, especially in view of the present mediascape which is very different from the one in existence when a film like Night and Fog or Svilova’s Auschwitz documentaries first emerged and unsettled their spectators. They were a rare sight that showed, as Daney puts it, both that the camps were real and that these films were just. Nowadays, graphic depictions of suffering proliferate, overwhelm and often oversaturate their audiences. Contemporary wars are in many ways visually overexposed, at the risk of triggering affective numbness in the spectators. What is more, cameras and screens themselves are increasingly serving as weapons of mass death – when they are used for coordinating deadly drone strikes, for instance. And while that may seem like an endemic development of the digital age, it is important to remember that moving images were made complicit of mass death in the pre-digital era as well. Germany’s Nazi regime fully recognized the power of cinema and put it to their ideological ends, most notably in the documentary works of Leni Riefenstahl. The Diary of Diana B. overtly addresses these uneasy dynamics between the camera/screen/spectator/suffering and fascist propaganda. In the sequences that depict children in the camp, a group of interned Serbian boys are, for example, shown wearing Ustasha uniforms. Diana’s voice-over informs us that she and her team were not allowed to register those boys for rescue because they were selected to take part in the filming of a Nazi propaganda film. In this way, a film that self-reflexively explores its own role when it comes to history, memory, and mass atrocity, references another kind of film – one in which the camera is directly aligned with the weapons of war and, in fact, becomes one.

In Žbanić’s Quo Vadis, Aida?, a similar self-reflexive awareness is displayed, albeit in a different cinematic register. Žbanić does not incorporate archival footage, and for the film’s visual aesthetics, she and her cinematographer Christine Maier avoid echoing the blurry televised images of the events in Srebrenica in 1995, even when they are overtly referenced. What is shown instead are fictionalized reenactments that reveal the staging of these infamous Bosnian war images. For instance, when the Bosnian Serb general and mastermind of the Srebrenica genocide, Ratko Mladić, enters the town of Srebrenica – the tv footage of this was widely distributed at the time – Quo Vadis, Aida? shows him petulantly directing the setting, giving the camera crew orders to take down the Bosniak flag and film it lying on the ground, or being deeply invested in the quality of the take where he delivers his self-congratulatory speech about the ‘freeing’ of the town which he presents as a ‘gift’ to the Serbian people (“Did I say ‘Serbian’ too many times?”; “Did you film the background?”). This rendering does not replicate but rather critically deconstructs the original footage, as it reveals its deliberate staging and an incessant obsession with the optics of necropolitical power. Likewise, when Mladić meets with Srebrenica’s civilian representatives for ‘negotiations’ (where the civilians are told that they can “either survive or disappear”), he again issues directions to the camera operator, this time to switch to the other side of the room in order to shoot a portion of the deliberations from a different angle, to ensure that the frightened civilians’ faces are filmed, and to capture the setting in a way that emphasizes his dominance. As Mladić is issuing (false) reassurances of safety to the civilians, the film switches to the delegation’s only female member, the only person who seems to have already grasped that all the reassurances are just empty words. As a buzzing fly overtakes her subjective hearing, she is seen staring straight at the wilted flowers on the table – an eerie foreshadowing of the things to come. In another scene, when Mladić enters a bus full of women survivors in order to declare “I am here to save you”, “I forgive you everything,” and “I grant you the gift of life,” he quickly issues yet another stage direction to the camera person: “Film them, not me.” He displays an acute awareness of the medium, as well as a sadistic pleasure in manifesting his power and capturing his prisoners’ fear on camera. Here again, the camera is not an objective form of documentation. It is an extension of the genocidal reign of terror.

Unlike the collage-like format of The Diary of Diana B., Quo Vadis, Aida? stays in the mode of a narrative film throughout, and presents, for the most part, the chaotic events surrounding the Srebrenica genocide chronologically (except for one pre-war ‘flashback’ which the titular, fictional Aida experiences more as a drug-induced hallucination). Also, they are almost exclusively seen from a singular point of view, that of Aida, who finds herself in the thick of things because of her position as a translator for the Dutch UN peacekeeping forces stationed in the area. Centering the film around a fictional character provides Žbanić with a degree of artistic and expressive freedom she might not have had otherwise, since the historical accuracy of an actually existing individual’s story would likely have been more tightly scrutinized.8 Moreover, the film’s focus on a single protagonist effectively allows it to present the catastrophic event from an intimate and feverishly claustrophobic point-of-view. While we sense the scope of the catastrophe enveloping the site, like Aida (who is played by the acclaimed Serbian actress Jasna Đuričić) we also experience the limited knowledge one can have of it. Finally, having a female protagonist provides an opportunity for several important interventions. As mentioned earlier, war films typically have men at the forefront, a few notable exceptions notwithstanding, whereas women’s experiences are sidelined and treated as secondary. To have a woman at the center of a story of the Srebrenica massacre on Bosniak men and boys is all the more poignant, since their mothers, daughters, wives, sisters, and other female family members were left as powerless witnesses to the systematic killings of their loved ones. By necropolitical design, the women were the ones who subsequently had to find a way to live with their overwhelming trauma and insurmountable loss (the film is dedicated to “the women of Srebrenica and their 8,372 killed sons, fathers, husbands, brothers, cousins, neighbors…”). Aida is one of those women, as all her increasingly desperate efforts to save her husband and two sons ultimately fail.

As the Bosnian Serb army encroaches, the Dutch-controlled UN compound where Aida is employed becomes the site to which most Bosniak civilians flee in the hope of finding a safe shelter. However, when the Dutch officers quickly lock down the premises and relinquish their authority to the Serbs, the compound and its surroundings become a site of mass entrapment – another concentration camp. Aida’s positioning within this predicament is that of an in-betweener, in her role as a UN translator who has to act as an intermediary between the Dutch forces, the Serb army, and the entrapped civilians. Unlike most of her fellow Bosniaks, she has access to the compound’s more secure grounds and to the highest ranking Dutch officers within the base. Ultimately, none of that makes any difference, however.

The film starts with a visual echo of Žbanić’s first feature, Grbavica – a panning shot of people sitting in silent reflection. In Grbavica, it is the women survivors of mass rape holding a support group meeting. In Quo Vadis, Aida?, the panning shot shows Aida’s husband and sons sitting in silence in their family’s living room. They are, as we will understand in retrospect, apparitions. They cannot speak since they are already gone. That initial panning shot cuts to Aida, looking into space. Looking at them, at the memory of them, into the void that is left in the aftermath of their violent demise. The film’s final chapter harkens back to Aida sitting in the apartment by herself, as a ghostly voice calls out to her: “Mom!” She is being hailed into her role as a mother by a voice that can no longer speak but is still heard. In one of the film’s most emotional sequences, Aida is looking for the remains of her sons and husband years after the genocide. As she walks alongside many other women through a big hall where human remains and their belongings are displayed on the floor, she suddenly pauses next to two human remains and covers her mouth. She begins to sob quietly, before breaking down and kneeling between the remains. This is the moment Aida and the other women survivors both hope for and fear the most: a dreaded sense of closure, as they can now at least bury the remains of their loved ones, but also an indisputable, final confirmation that they are indeed dead, that the worst is true. In the aftermath of massacres, observes Achille Mbembe, bodies become reduced to “simple skeletons” and “[t]heir morphology henceforth inscribes them in the register of undifferentiated generality: simple relics of an unburied pain, empty, meaningless corporealities, strange deposits plunged into cruel stupor” (2003: 35). However, this is precisely why the act of recognition, even in death (of personhood, of differentiated singularity), and the burial itself can act as counterpoints to the “undifferentiated generality” that a genocidal massacre seeks to instill into each and every victim.

Quo Vadis, Aida?, a film about systematic killings, refuses to make a graphic spectacle out of massacre and mass death. This arguably makes the knowledge about the mass murders even more affectively gut-wrenching for the spectator, as it poses a ghostly yet crucial, devastating backdrop to the events that we see unfold at the UN compound. Death is enclosing like a ring of steel, but the murders are not accessible as an experience to those who are still living, except through the perspective of the perpetrators, which the film refuses to inhabit. In fact, to graphically show the Srebrenica murders would be to place the spectator within the perpetrators’ perspective, since the dead cannot bear witness to their own death. When Aida’s sons and husband are loaded onto a truck, transported alongside other captured men to what appears to be a former movie theater, and told to stand with their hands behind their necks, a Serb soldier yells out: “Now you will see the real film.” The ‘real film’ is the anti-spectacle of mass execution. Rifles appear through the openings from which projectors used to light up the film screen. As the guns start firing, we do not see the men die. Instead, the film cuts to the outdoors and slowly zooms out into the seemingly serene afternoon interrupted by automatic gunfire. This is the ‘real film’ – the unseen film, yet one that must remain acutely acknowledged. This is another poignant way in which a film speaks nearby and watches us, the spectators, by calling attention to both the power and the limits of cinematic representation, as well as to the medium’s frequent complicity with death. It is precisely the unseen – the anti-spectacle, that which cannot be claimed or seized – that is watching us here. In refusing to turn death into a graphic spectacle, Quo Vadis, Aida? subjects its own medium to a critical inspection – by means of the projector booths that have been repurposed to directly align with the weapons of war (Figure 3).

Figure 3
Figure 3

The ‘real film’: Guns emerge from the projector booth in Quo Vadis, Aida? Frame grab.

Citation: Studies in World Cinema 1, 2 (2021) ; 10.1163/26659891-bja10003

In the film’s final act, Aida is back to being a schoolteacher in Srebrenica. As the parents of her students (a not uncommon mix of survivors and perpetrators of the war crimes) happily watch a school recital, the children perform a visually symbolic act. They are seen repeatedly covering and uncovering their eyes with their hands. It is an important moment not only because it places emphasis on the youth and future generations, but also because it calls attention to the act of looking and not looking, seeing and not seeing. What is being seen and what remains unseen? Who decides to see, and who looks away? In these final moments we are reminded of the ethical imperative to know that which may not be fully comprehensible nor entirely visible in its horror. The lingering final frame shows Aida looking head on. She, and the film, are indeed watching us, leaving us with the charge to bear witness, in perpetuity (Figure 4).

Figure 4
Figure 4

Aida, and the film, are watching us (Quo Vadis, Aida?). Frame grab.

Citation: Studies in World Cinema 1, 2 (2021) ; 10.1163/26659891-bja10003

On Speaking – and Seeing – Nearby with Women’s World Cinema

In the beginning of this essay, I argued for the importance of placing locally and historically situated stories within ‘the world’ so as to avoid the pitfalls of (even inadvertently) vacating such stories from their embeddedness in the larger flows of global politics, power, and recognizability. This is where the concept of world cinema can helpfully signal that the hierarchies of visibility are still heavily skewed towards the so-called ‘First World’ geographies. When it comes to women filmmakers in the ‘non-First world’, we could nuance it further by speaking of women’s world cinema as a concept whose meaning is twofold: on the one hand, a variety of world cinema that is made by women and/or addresses the spectator as female, and, on the other, one which designates a cinema of and about the myriad experiences of being identified as a woman in ‘the world’ and, at the same time, rooted in a specific locality and point of view that are typically neither central nor consequential within the global hierarchies of power. The Diary of Diana B. and Quo Vadis, Aida? are two locally specific examples of women’s world cinema that bear witness in ways that evoke Trinh T. Minh-ha’s ‘speaking nearby.’ As she elaborates on the concept:

When one is not just trying to capture an object, to explain a cultural event, or to inform for the sake of information; when one refuses to commodify knowledge, one necessarily disengages oneself from the mainstream ideology of communication, whose linear and transparent use of language and the media reduces these to a mere vehicle of ideas. Thus, every time one puts forth an image, a word, a sound or a silence, these are never instruments simply called upon to serve a story or a message. They have a set of meanings, a function, and a rhythm of their own within the world that each film builds anew. (1992: 85–86, emphasis in the text)

Many influential theories about trauma and witnessing can be fruitful frameworks through which to analyze the two films discussed here – Cathy Caruth’s approach to trauma as an unclaimed experience (1996), for instance, or Dominick LaCapra’s concept of empathic unsettlement (1999), both of which I have closely engaged with in my previous analyses of cinema and trauma (Jelača, 2016).9 In the final instance, however, I find it particularly important to think with (rather than about) Budisavljević’s and Žbanić’s films through an analytical approach whose founding principle is to decolonize the gaze and knowledge production alike, which is what Minh-ha’s ‘speaking nearby’ is intrinsically devoted to. Both films perform anti-spectacular, feminist historiographies that compel the spectator to bear witness by seeing nearby, while simultaneously being seen by the films themselves. Crucially, these films, as instances of women’s world cinema, do not purport to seize their subjects through conventional formal or narrative closures (such as redemption), closures which could lead to a sense of fully knowable stories and experiences, in turn susceptible to reductive cooptation. With their anti-spectacles and anti-closures, they demand our continued witnessing as an ethical imperative. Likewise, their engaged, antifascist and feminist historiographies build the world anew, through visual, aural, and affective rhythms which reveal the many intricacies of the always already contested flows of history, memory, inarticulable trauma, and survival.


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  • Mazaj, Meta. (2013). Marking the Trail: Balkan Women Filmmakers and the Transnational Imaginary. In R., Gorup, ed. After Yugoslavia: The Cultural Spaces of a Vanished Land. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 200218.

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See, for example, Caruth (1996), LaCapra (1999), and Leys (2000).


In relation to the notions of bare life, the states of exception and genocide, Giorgio Agamben identifies the concentration camp as one of “the exemplary places of modern biopolitics” (1998: 10), while Achille Mbembe crucially expands on the theorizing of biopolitics by shifting focus to colonialism, slavery, racism, and racialized bodies which are rendered always already inhuman (“kept alive but in a state of injury”) – thus, for some peoples and bodies, instead of biopolitics, we can more accurately speak of necropolitics (2003: 21).


For a further discussion of Balkan women filmmakers through a transnational framework, see Mazaj (2013).


It should be noted that Yugoslav director Lordan Zafranović made the documentary Jasenovac: The Cruelest Death Camp of All Times in 1983. The documentary features harrowing depictions of the atrocities committed in the camp, but to very different ideological ends (akin to Resnais’ Night and Fog). Moreover, for decades Zafranović attempted to make a narrative feature about Jasenovac, The Children of Kozara, for which notable Yugoslav writer Arsen Diklić wrote a screenplay in 1986. To date, Zafranović has been unable to secure funding for the film, and it has been pointed out that some key elements of the Dara of Jasenovac script bear a striking resemblance to Arsen Diklić’s decades-old screenplay (see “Veza između Rade i Dare”:


Since the release of Karanović’s film, a younger generation director, Ognjen Glavonić, made The Load (2018), another powerful film about Serbia’s war crimes, this time committed in Kosovo. The narrative feature is based on the same events covered by Glavonić in his documentary Depth Two (2016).


While developing the film, director Dana Budisavljević discovered that she is a distant relative of Diana Budisavljević’s husband, Julije.


Judith Butler writes in The Frames of War: “The ‘frames’ that work to differentiate the lives we can apprehend from those we cannot (or that produce lives across a continuum of life) not only organize visual experience but also generate specific ontologies of the subject. Subjects are constituted through the norms which, in their reiteration, produce and shift the terms through which subjects are recognized. (…) In what sense does life, then, always exceed the normative conditions of its recognizability?” (2009: 3–4, emphasis mine).


In fact, Žbanić initially intended to adapt a surviving male interpreter’s memoirs to the screen, but ultimately decided against it and created a fictional female protagonist instead.


See also Vidan (2018).

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