The Act of Cinematic Witness: On “Dear Comrades!” and “Quo Vadis, Aida?”

Acts of cinematic witness come close to the limits of what a film can, in all good conscience, show. After Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, a film that, as Gilberto Perez puts it, ‘bears witness visually to the act of bearing witness verbally,’ * the terms of dramatising or representing atrocities in film changed. No repeats of the tracking shot from Kapò. But the question is how cataclysmic events from history are shown, not whether they should be. They are; sometimes carelessly. Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake is, for me, Example A: thoughtless in the extreme about the past it uses for the purposes of a loaded backstory. But Lanzmann surprised me, following the release of László Nemes’s Son of Saul, about which I have a great many reservations, by proclaiming: ‘I love it very much.’ It is possible, with a fair amount of artistry and an even greater store of moral responsibility, to depict horrifying acts from the past: Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent, for one; Come and See, by Elem Klimov, Shepitko’s husband, for another; or the striking distance which isn’t distance in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness, for one more. Two new releases, Andrei Konchalovsky’s Dear Comrades! and Jasmila Žbanić’s Quo Vadis, Aida?, walk into similar considerations. 

The Novocherkassk massacre of June, 1962, can be seen as the centre around which Dear Comrades! revolves, but the film’s structure seeks to minimise this supposition. Despite a handsome production design and a tight scheme of diagonal, conflict-imbued compositions in gleaming, creamy greys, the film is rigid to the point of immobility. Its narrative is anchored to Lyudmilla (Julia Vysotskaya), a loyal Stalinist local committee member, adrift ideologically following Khrushchev’s revision of recent Soviet history. Her being sectioned off from those around her is signalled in the way Konchalovsky and cinematographer Andrey Naydenov shoot the interior of her home. The camera is often positioned in the small hallway, able to see into a living room to the right of the screen, a kitchen to the left, and a door to a balcony in the background. These visual separations complement the way the three generations living in this cramped home are estranged from each other in emotional, intellectual, moral, and ideological terms. Lyudmilla’s father (Sergei Erlish), disillusioned with the communist project, simply awaits his death; Lyudmilla’s aforementioned fury against revisionism has spoiled her vision; and her daughter, Svetka (Yuliya Burova), whose sympathy is with workers striking because of raises in food costs, while their production quotas increase unabated. The film is rife with compartmentalisation, which proves troubling once Konchalovsky’s enormous resources of irony come into focus. 

The staging of the massacre itself is simply one more of the film’s compartments. As the gunfire starts, the camera is tucked away in a hairdresser’s, the amiable music drowning out the screams. Lyudmilla, who was searching the crowd for her daughter among the strikers, escapes into the salon and waits it out. From here on in, the film springs its trap on Lyudmilla, punishing her for her complicity in the circumstances of the attack. Her appeal, during a military meeting for use of arms, was heard with greater clarity than she thought; she realises her role in the party machine has helped kill or wound her own comrades—and possibly her own daughter. The remainder of the film comprises her attempt, riding around with a K.G.B. agent who acts as the film’s source of absurdist bureaucratic paradoxes, to find Svetka alive or dead. This changes the narrative from an examination of conscience, and the course of a collective trauma, into a liberal-humanist story of personal redemption, expressed with a sledgehammering irony that denies the emotional claims of its instigating event.

In Žbanić’s film, Aida (Jasna Đuričić), like Lyudmilla, is a woman in a position of some influence. She is an English teacher by profession, recruited, during the Bosnian war, to interpret for U.N. forces stationed in the country. She also uses her position, her closeness to the authorities, to make exceptions for her husband and two sons, who, after the Serbian army march into Srebrenica in July, 1995, have been forced to evacuate along with the town’s citizens. The Serb’s genocidal campaign against Bosniaks has passed through with token resistance; the fault of a lackadaisical U.N. response, a confused chain of command, and a sorry lack of resources. In her acts of linguistic relay, the film’s irony allows itself to emerge, to shade interactions, not overpower them; she conveys the meaning of her superior’s words, unsure of their veracity herself—just as the Dutch military themselves, from top brass to the literal teenagers guarding the gates, are nearly buckling from worry. But this is nothing next to the trepidation Žbanić captures on the faces of the escaped Bosnians, those inside the U.N. base, and the many thousands outside who are desperate to enter it. Filming for the most part in long lens, the director’s camera isolates individuals from groups, taking a step back from Aida’s sole perspective; in effect placing her story within thousands of others, those of her neighbours, friends, colleagues, and former pupils. 

The structure of Quo Vadis, Aida? leads with awful inevitability to the massacre, a steady escalation into calamity signalled by Đuričić’s performance: her face in close-up assumes the mould of a panic-mask. She exhausts the possibilities of her position, trying to arrange safe convoy for her family as the Serbian forces take advantage of the situation, entering the U.N. base heavily armed. This sequence is felt in the pit of the stomach. As Bosnian men are questioned, the illusion of safety under the aegis of the Dutch army is exposed; Zbanic controls her crowded frames, tightening the atmosphere on command, but never for the sake of tension on its own. Her direction is an act of remembrance, not an occasion for empty displays of technical prowess. She is also careful with the role of a Serbian propagandist, who always follows Ratko Mladić (Boris Isaković), armed with a video camera. I was dreading the moment when Žbanić would adopt his camera’s point-of-view, but her choices here are surprising, and mirror a revealing POV shot late in the film. On two occasions she refuses to privilege this view, framing her camera just to the right of the propagandist’s; later, on one of the fleet of buses, she takes a view approximate to his, but not exactly aligned with it. The only moment she does use its view is during a negotiation, which Aida’s husband, Nihad (Izudin Bajrović), partakes in: the camera proper gives way to the Serbian’s videocamera for a quick, handheld shot of one negotiator, before panning to Nihad, who looks into the lens, and then looks away. The shot is replicated later, from Aida’s point-of-view, charging into a Dutch meeting, the camera registering a pair of soldiers’ reaction to her pleading gaze. These two shots are a patterned expression of powerlessness; both have their part in confirming what will happen. One is framed as a provocation, an attempt to see through images employed to depraved ends; the other is the view of a witness. When the massacre itself begins, Žbanić chooses tact, a slow withdrawal; this, after having placed the narrative so close to Aida, while always glancing at those around her, constitutes a viewer in a profound act of cinematic witness. 

* Gilberto Perez: The Eloquent Screen: A Rhetoric of Film (University of Minnesota Press: 2019), 88.

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