2020, Movies

Quo Vadis, Aida? (2020, Jasmila Zbanic)

This might be a very good movie, or it might be an okay movie. Maybe it’s the Hotel Rwanda of Bosnia (sans the upbeat ending) or maybe it’s better than that. But I don’t know, because the version I watched on streaming didn’t have the right audio options.

What happened to this film on streaming is probably representative of numerous multi-language films on streaming. In theory, digital distribution should be wonderful for multi-language films. It should be the easiest way to ensure that anyone in the world can understand the film. But that’s not what happened here. Instead, there is the audio track in “English” and there are “English” subtitles. The problem is that this film is in four languages, not just English. And the subtitle option is merely closed captioning. It has subtitles of the English lines but nothing for the other three languages. And then it has descriptions of sounds in English, as is normal for closed captioning. So the issue is that there was literally no way for me to tell what was being said in Serbian or Bosnian or Dutch. I could infer from what was on screen, but I had no real idea.

I appreciate films that don’t have subtitles for another language when it’s important to the plot, i.e. when a main character can’t understand what’s happening so we can’t. But That’s not what’s going on here. This film was meant to have subtitles I’m sure of it. But Plex has just uploaded a version that isn’t entirely intelligible to English-speakers, Dutch-speakers (who usually understand English) or to those who understand Bosnian and/or Serbian but not either English or Dutch.

There’s a lot that works here: Djuricic is excellent as far as I can tell, as a woman doing all she can to prevent catastrophe. And the film does a good job – as most films about the Rwanda genocide do – of showing the ground truth of the impotence of the UN. (As an aside: all these American UN conspiracy nuts really should watch some of these films.) There are some moments that I think do a pretty good job of capturing what it must be like to be in a situation like this.

I do think the stuff that happens to her family is likely at least a little bit contrived.

But so much of this is guess work on my part because I couldn’t understand well over 50% of the dialogue because of the absolutely inexcusable decision by the streaming service to treat the audio as if it’s only in English.

Given what happens on screen, given the moment on the stairs near the end, and the devastating scene with the bones, I’m inclined to decide it’s pretty great, regardless of not being able to understand so much of the dialogue.


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