Chilling Instruction in Life’s Hard Lessons

Some life experiences can involve truly hard pills to swallow. In fact, they can be so arduous to undergo that we may wonder why we’re having to endure such ordeals, especially when they involve elements we find unthinkable. Getting through that kind of torment might seem unbearable, and discovering the “reason” for it could be unfathomable. Under such circumstances, we can only hope that some aspect of clarity reveals itself, as is apparent in the chilling new historical drama, “Quo Vadis, Aida?” (web site, trailer).

Aida Selmanagić (Jasna Djuričić) is experiencing an ordeal that no one should have to endure. The Yugoslavian civil conflicts have been raging for several years, spilling from one constituent republic to another as the now-fragile union implodes and dissolves. By 1995, as this story begins, strife has made its way to the State of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Aida lives with her husband, Nihad (Izudin Bajrovic), and her two adult sons, Hamdija (Boris Ler) and Sejo (Dino Bajrovic). She works as a translator for the United Nations peacekeeping force assigned to help protect the region’s citizens from aggressive incursions by invading forces from the neighboring State of Serbia. It’s a stressful job in many regards, but it’s about to get worse – much worse.

Aida and her family reside in the largely Muslim community of Srebenica in eastern Bosnia, not far from the border of Serbia, whose population consists of mostly Orthodox Christians. Srebenica is an area that the UN has declared a safe haven, one that its forces have vowed to protect, a promise that the local mayor (Ermin Bravo) has extreme reservations about. After a number of incidents, community officials have become skeptical about the “assurances” offered by Col. Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh), commander of the predominantly Dutch troops assigned by the UN to handle this task. And, unfortunately, that skepticism soon proves correct when Serb forces under Gen. Ratho Mladić (Boris Isakovic) invade Srebenica, savagely plundering the community and killing residents (especially men) at will.

UN translator Aida Selmanagić (Jasna Djuričić) looks out upon an uncertain future during the 1995 siege of Srebenica during the Serbian attack on Bosnia-Herzegovina in director Jasmila Žbanić’s “Quo Vadis, Aida?” Photo courtesy of Super LTD.

As Serb forces brazenly stake their claim to their newly conquered territory, troops and local residents flee to the UN military compound outside of town to seek safety. However, there are far more refugees than the compound can handle. Aida, as a UN official, is protected and allowed to remain with the troops and the refugees who successfully managed to arrive before the compound’s gates were closed. However, with the compound’s capacity reached, her family and many of her friends are left to wait outside, their future uncertain. Aida makes a plea with Col. Karremans to allow her husband and sons to enter, but he explains that, unlike her, they are not official UN representatives and cannot be given preferential treatment. And, with Gen. Mladić’s troops now advancing on the compound, the uncertainty of that future grows ever more precarious.

With circumstances threatening to spiral out of control, Col. Karremans and his aide, Maj. Franken (Raymond Thiry), desperately contact UN officials for instructions, requests that go unanswered. Given the size of the crowd inside the encampment (with not nearly enough facilities and provisions to address the need), as well as the growing masses assembling outside the compound and the encroaching Serbian troops, the situation is a disaster waiting to happen. With no help forthcoming from above, the UN delegation is forced into negotiating an agreement with Mladić, who has a notorious reputation for not keeping his word.

Mladić promises to provide safe passage for all of the refugees, those both inside and outside the compound. Fleets of buses and trucks soon begin arriving to transport the weary exiles out of the region. However, given Mladić’s track record, there’s ample doubt that he’ll abide by his assurances, especially when he and his brutal enforcer, Joka (Emir Hadzihafizbegovic), begin separating the men from the women and children. And perhaps no one has greater concern about this than Aida, given that her men are in the midst of that human culling.

Col. Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh, right), head of the UN peacekeeping force pledged to protect the Bosnian safe haven of Srebenica, addresses the throngs of refugees seeking safety with the assistance of his translator, Aida Selmanagić (Jasna Djuričić, left), in the gripping new historical drama, “Quo Vadis, Aida?” Photo courtesy of Super LTD.

As the situation grows ever more tense and UN forces are increasingly concerned about their own ability to safely escape, Aida scrambles to find a way to have her family included in the official delegation. She experiences a series of letdowns as each attempt at securing their welfare falls through. One can feel the fear pervading her being as she desperately seeks to protect Nihad, Hamdija and Sejo. But, with time running out, can she do this before it’s too late?

The siege of Srebenica was one of the most devastating incidents of the Yugoslavian civil conflicts, if not the 1990s overall. With the end of the Cold War, the abolition of South African apartheid and any number of other groundbreaking world events, it seemed at the time that the planet was becoming a more peaceful and civilized place. And then this happened – an outpouring of madness at a time when all indications were pointing to humanity heading in a different – and far preferable – direction.

So why did this occur? That’s difficult to ascertain, yet one thing is for sure – it was an event through which both personal and collective dramas played out, much like what happened during other significant group conflicts, such as the world wars, the civil rights movement and a variety of other mass events. This film aptly illustrates how this unfolded in Bosnia, on both levels, with results that impacted individuals directly and group affiliations collectively.

To be sure, one might legitimately wonder how anyone could let this happen. It could be that those who carried it out were so focused on the outcome that they had no regard for the consequences. That’s certainly no excuse for what occurred, but it does help to explain why it may have happened.

Subconsciously speaking, this may have stemmed from the many life lessons to be learned, both personally and collectively, as a result of this experience. Admittedly, this was an abhorrent and painful way for those lessons to be learned. However, for what it’s worth, and as difficult as this may be to accept, sometimes it takes events of great magnitude for messages like this to sink in. It’s a way of shocking and scaring ourselves so thoroughly that it slays the temptation to want to repeat such practices – or so it’s hoped. Based on how matters have unfolded in our world since 1995, however, it would appear we still have our work cut out for us on this front.

Col. Karremans (Johan Heldenbergh, right), head of the UN peacekeeping force pledged to protect the Bosnian safe haven of Srebenica, and his translator, Aida Selmanagić (Jasna Djuričić, center), meet with Joka (Emir Hadzihafizbegovic, left), chief enforcer of advancing Sebian troops, in director Jasmila Žbanić’s gripping new historical drama, “Quo Vadis, Aida?” Photo courtesy of Super LTD.

The Srebenica incident also afforded an opportunity for a lesson in integrity, both for the UN forces and the Serbian troops, particularly in matters of responsibility and keeping one’s word. As events unfold in the film, it’s apparent that both sides need schooling on this subject. The UN delegation, for example, learned a hard lesson about making promises that can’t be fulfilled, an experience essential for future undertakings of this nature. And the invading forces came face to face with what stems from outright lying, as evidenced by the fallout that came in the world’s reaction to the incident. Indeed, in the greater scheme of things, we can get our lessons in either the hard way or through one that goes easier on us. Based on what transpired here, it’s obvious to see which choices the principal players in this scenario made.

The life lessons explored here, though, have to do with more than just the foregoing issues. The mass event described above deals largely with lessons for the collective consciousness, as well as an attempt to illuminate the unenlightened. However, it also provides an opportunity for significant individual lessons. In Aida’s case, for example, this experience offered her a chance to face fears – big ones – to see if she could overcome them. It also allowed her to test her abilities to push limits, to seek the means to help herself and family out of a desperate situation, one where life and death are clearly on the line. These may not have been the best circumstances to explore these capabilities, but, if they offer the opportunity to push our boundaries, we may eventually look upon them differently as we make our way through the experience.

Some of you reading this may think that this is all hogwash, and good arguments could probably be made for that viewpoint. However, if nothing else, this event nevertheless unfolded for a reason, and I suspect it was to make a statement – that such atrocities are patently unacceptable, no matter what justification might be offered up for them. In the wake of the Holocaust, a clarion call went out proclaiming “Never again.” And, while Srebenica was certainly not on the same scale, the intents underlying this incident were eerily similar to those that sparked its predecessor. Obviously, we as a species didn’t learn our lesson the first time through, so it took another such incident to draw attention to the inhumanity of these beliefs and actions. Given what’s happened in the time since 1995, it’s apparent that we still don’t get it, either. Until we do, there’s a good chance that these brutalities will continue to occur. How many will it take before the message sinks in? How many times must we manifest events that make statements like this until we at last see that they’re not serving us and that our energies are better put to other uses? From that standpoint, we can only hope that the victims of Srebenica will not have sacrificed themselves in vain.

While awaiting word about the fate of her family, UN translator Aida Selmanagić (Jasna Djuričić) anxiously considers options for securing their safety in the Oscar-nominated international feature, “Quo Vadis, Aida?” Photo courtesy of Super LTD.

The Srebenica Massacre was one of the most horrific incidents of the Bosnian War, and the chilling events that led up to it are presented in unsettling detail in this superb, if troubling, historical account. Told largely from one individual’s perspective, the film follows her ordeal with palpable anguish and a desperate desire to find a way out of harrowing circumstances. Director Jasmila Žbanić’s latest puts viewers in the middle of the unfolding genocide, re-creating the horror and agony experienced by those caught up in it, but it does so without ever becoming graphic or gratuitous, unnerving though much of the narrative may be. The excellent ensemble cast, led by the award-worthy performance of Jasna Djuričić, sells this story so effectively that one can’t help but feel what the victims are going through on a gut level. “Quo Vadis, Aida?” will undoubtedly leave audiences uncomfortable and heartbroken, but it brings to light the unspeakable atrocities that occurred during this conflict in hopes that we never experience them again.

While this offering may not have been released with much fanfare, it has been deservedly lauded by critics. It has also been building an impressive list of accolades, including BAFTA Award nominations for best foreign language film and best director, an Independent Spirit Award nod for best international film, and, most importantly, an Oscar nomination for best international feature, an honor it truly deserves to win. It’s indeed heartening to see a film receive the praise it so richly deserves.

Remembering the past can be a painful experience. Yet the memory of such events generally lingers to remind us of what we went through in the hope that we never have to experience them again. The indelible mark left by such incidents is designed to send us in new directions, a future full of hope, enlightenment and compassion for ourselves and mankind. Let us hope we learn from those experiences and indeed follow those new paths.

A complete review is available by clicking here. 

Who Will Win This Year’s Oscars?

It’s that time of year again – time for my predictions of the winners at the upcoming annual Academy Awards. While several of the likely winners have come into view, a few are still up for grabs. Read my analysis of the top six categories and who I think will come away with the awards (and why) by clicking here.

2020’s Best and Worst Documentary Films

My list of the year’s best and worst documentaries might be coming a little late “this year,” but, then, this was unlike any other “year” that preceded it – especially since it ended up being longer than 12 months! So, with that said, here’s what made my Top and Bottom Documentary List for “2020,” along with some honorable mentions that I’ve deemed noteworthy. Find out more by reading “The Top and Bottom Documentaries of 2020” by clicking here.

New Movies, Insightful Predictions on Frankiesense & More

With theaters now open in most areas and streaming services working overtime, movie fans now have more viewing options – and viewing venues – than they have had in a while. And, with the Oscars right around the corner, it’s time for those ever-popular predictions of the winners. Find out more this Thursday, April 22, on the latest edition of The Good Media Network’s Frankiesense & More video podcast with yours truly and host Frankie Picasso. Tune in at 1 pm ET on Facebook Live for a lively discussion of new releases worth seeing (and some worth avoiding). And, if you don’t see the broadcast live, catch it later on demand!

Lessons in How To Be Ourselves

Discovering ourselves is often a challenging process, especially when we feel lost and have no idea where or how to look for answers. However, if we remain open to options – including those that appear to be coming to us from unlikely sources – we may just find the guidance we seek. So it was for a lost soul searching for himself as depicted in the beautiful and moving new documentary, “My Octopus Teacher” (web site, trailer).

At the opening of this highly personal documentary, South African director and cinematographer Craig Foster confesses to feeling lost and severely burned out. While he doesn’t elaborate on the details, he admits to a lack of motivation for taking on new projects. He also laments that, as the father of a young son, Tom, who was beginning his approach to adolescence, he didn’t feel up to the task of providing the paternal guidance that someone at such an impressionable age generally requires. As a result, Craig says he was spending most of his time adrift, looking for the spark to get himself and his life back on track.

Having grown up on the South African seacoast, Craig says he was always strongly influenced by his proximity to the ocean. And, given his love of nature, the subject of many of his previous film projects, he felt a tie to the environment and all its wonders. So, after an extended period of time contemplating how to proceed, he began to sense that a return to the natural world would be just what he needed to revive himself. Little did he know at that point how right he would be.

Director Craig Foster discusses how his ongoing encounters with an undersea creature helped change his life in the heartwarming new documentary, “My Octopus Teacher.” Photo courtesy of Netflix and the Sea Change Project.

Craig decided to go snorkeling in the thick kelp forest in the cold ocean waters just off the shore of where he lived. He was in awe of the rich and diverse animal and plant life he encountered. But what captivated him most was an encounter with a small octopus, one that was cautiously defensive at first. However, the longer he interacted with the little mollusk, the more he could see that the octopus was as curious about him as he was about the octopus. Thus began an unusual but heartfelt “relationship” between Craig and his new underwater friend.

As a result of this encounter, Craig says he wanted to know more, so he decided that he would go snorkeling every day to seek out this fascinating creature. And, the more time he spent in the company of the octopus, the more intimate their relationship became, one that would become characterized by qualities that he never expected would arise between a human and an undersea animal.

While some may contend that this is nothing more than a case of anthropomorphism, skeptics would have a hard time convincing Craig otherwise. As the film illustrates, the octopus demonstrates traits like curiosity and trust in ways that are far too humanlike to be dismissed as purely coincidental but unintended animal behavior. That’s particularly true in light of their repeat occurrence; if it happened only once, it might be easy to chalk up the experience to the contentions put forth by the skeptics, but, since such attributes became apparent over and over again, it’s hard to argue with Craig’s observations.

With his new undersea friend by his side, filmmaker Craig Foster embarks on an undersea odyssey that changed his life forever, as seen in the inspiring new documentary, “My Octopus Teacher,” available for online streaming. Photo courtesy of Netflix and the Sea Change Project.

The more time Craig spent with the octopus, the more he could see just how startlingly intelligent it was. For example, when it came to matters of protecting itself, the octopus proved to be a master of camouflage and escape tactics, especially in safeguarding itself against the waters’ native predatory pajama sharks. The same was true of the creature’s hunting technique, coming up with clever means of stalking its prey. From these observations, Craig concluded that the intelligence and inventiveness of the octopus has been grossly underestimated. Indeed, it could be one of the most sentient beings on the planet, though we’ve never noticed that before due to a lack of such up-close interaction.

On top of that, though, Craig observed that there was more to this creature than just its surprising intelligence. He came to find that there was much that we could learn from the octopus, lessons in intangible qualities that many of us would be reluctant to admit could be attributed to an undersea animal. He found that especially helpful to him given what he was going through personally at the time, attributes that he discovered he could make use of in his own life in areas like compassion, acceptance, love and connection. In particular, he drew upon this experience in fostering a stronger relationship with Tom, whom he eventually invited to join him in his daily snorkeling adventures. Through this ongoing odyssey, Craig came to discover that this fascinating little creature would indeed become his octopus teacher.

Fortunately for Craig, he got exactly the teacher he needed at exactly the time he needed it. In fact, he freely admits to recognizing that the appearance of the octopus (and its behavior) were reflections of his inner being at that time. Given his unspoken but nevertheless definitive need for a teacher to help him turn his life around, the octopus – as unlikely as it may seem – fulfilled this requirement.

In observing the animal’s behavior, Craig notes its adaptability to its environment and the circumstances affecting it. He says he learned much from this experience from a pragmatic standpoint, particularly in matters of improvisation and devising solutions to overcome limitations. But, over time, as he began to more fully understand the nuances of the creature’s actions, he noted the surfacing of more intangible qualities, traits that he previously never would have believed an octopus could possess or exhibit. These were the same qualities that were beginning to surface in Craig himself, reinforcing his observation about his undersea friend serving as a reflection of his own inner being.

An octopus living off the coast of South Africa provides an interesting study, both personally and professionally, for a filmmaker and naturalist in “My Octopus Teacher.” Photo courtesy of Netflix and the Sea Change Project.

To his credit, Craig recognized the parallels and saw how he could apply these notions in his own life. The experience thus became an opportunity to learn important life lessons, particularly in matters of allowing his true self to emerge. This enabled him to take ownership of his personal integrity and make it manifest in his everyday existence, not only in his dealings with the octopus, but also in his experiences on dry land. There’s much to be said for this, even if it came about in a most unexpected way.

As noted above, Craig says that he learned much about such concepts as connection, love and compassion. And those principles, in turn, translated into significant developments in his daily life, altering his future in important ways that he never saw coming. Perhaps the most significant of these was his establishment of the Sea Change Project, an initiative aimed at promoting greater awareness of oceanic-related considerations, particularly the beauty, sustainability and ecological importance of South Africa’s kelp forest and the creatures that inhabit it. The passion that came out of Craig’s personal undersea odyssey has thus yielded an organization with an earnest mission whose implications are far greater than anything he might have imagined when he began his snorkeling adventure. Who would have believed when this all started that something so seemingly small could lead to something so notably grand in scale?

Through these developments, Craig and the octopus have thus taught many of us how to relate to our world in new, innovative and unexpected ways. That likely was not the seeming intent when this all began, but that is what has grown from it. While Craig was seeking to find himself, he did, but in ways that he probably did not consider as part of his original plan. Nevertheless, when he launched into his effort to find himself, he laid the fundamental foundation for what would emerge, even if he wasn’t aware of the form it would eventually take at that time. The seeds of what ultimately would surface were planted at that point, blossoming into the impressive creation that would one day be born, a product of both his inventiveness and his own personal evolution.

The thick kelp forest off the South African seacoast provides a beautiful backdrop for the life-changing experience of a burned out filmmaker in the heartwarming new documentary, “My Octopus Teacher.” Photo courtesy of Netflix and the Sea Change Project.

In line with the foregoing, Craig thus came to discover his destiny, his opportunity to become his best, truest self for the betterment of himself and those around him. What emerged from this experience carried wide-ranging implications affecting both humanity and our kindreds in the plant and animal kingdoms. But, on a more personal level, it has also enabled Craig to live out his destiny for his own personal betterment. We should all hope that we can bring ourselves to attain that, considering who and how many of us stand to benefit from it.

Who would have thought that we could learn anything meaningful from an undersea mollusk? Yet, if we’re willing to devote the time and effort to studying the miracles of nature, there’s no telling what we might glean from the experience, both about our subject and ourselves. Such is the remarkable experience of Craig Foster, whose story is beautifully and meaningfully told through this superb documentary. Gorgeously filmed and warmly narrated, this moving offering from directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed shows us a world seldom seen, with insights never imagined about a creature we know of but know virtually nothing about. It also profoundly touches us in heartfelt ways, drawing out an array of emotions that might include the shedding of a tear or two. This BAFTA Award-winning release and Oscar nominee is truly a cinematic labor of love, one richly deserving of all the recognition and accolades it has received. The film is available for streaming online.

If one ever had any doubt about the undeniable connections between us and everything in our existence, “My Octopus Teacher” certainly dispels that uncertainty. As this film so beautifully illustrates, it’s quite remarkable how such an outcome can result. We should be grateful for the opportunity to have experiences like this. But, considering how and where they arise from in the first place, we should thank ourselves for having the wherewithal to create them. When we understand that – and when we understand ourselves – we have an opportunity to appreciate who we are and what we’re capable of. And what a miracle that is.

A complete review is available by clicking here. 

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.