All the Movies and Books I Watched/Read/Loved Before Going to Bosnia

movies about bosnia - quo vadis aida

The fall of Yugoslavia and the wars that followed make for complex, hard-to-parse history. Before I went there, I did a deep dive into some of the best books and movies about Bosnia and the wider Balkans.

These are my favorites — if you only have time to read one book, make it The Bridge on the Drina. And if you only have the headspace for a single one of the best movies about Bosnia, it absolutely must be Quo Vadis, Aida?

Quo Vadis, Aida? (2021)
Directed by Jasmila Žbanic
I don’t even know what to say about this unbelievably harrowing(!!!) movie, focusing on the desperate efforts by a UN translator (the titular Aida, played by Serbian actress Jasna Đuričić) to get her husband and sons to safety in the days leading up to the Srebrenica massacre, during which more than 8,000 Bosnian men and boys were slaughtered. It plays like the inverse of Schindler’s List, in that there’s a list of the saved, and the monumentally impotent Dutch troops ostensibly safeguarding the area can’t stop taking names off it. It’s not gloomy or slow but heart-pounding, riveting, shocking — I can’t stop thinking about it — if not for the faint of heart. Nominated for a best foreign language film Oscar that I can’t believe it lost — this isn’t just one of the best movies about Bosnia and its war, but one of the best movies about war, full stop. (Where to stream)

Before the Rain (1994)
Directed by Milcho Manchevski
The trailer makes it sound like this movie is about a depressed English lady having an affair with a Macedonian war photographer, and I mean — I guess, but I would say that it’s more about  cycles of violence and our inability to do anything more than briefly interrupt them? That summary also doesn’t hint at the fact that the first section of this three-part movie is set in a monastery and largely silent, and the rest of it is often just very weird, including an early scene showing the dead body of a character who can’t possibly be where he’s supposed to be. Consider it a poem, not an essay. (Where to stream)

Welcome to Sarajevo (1997)
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
“What if … the Bosnian War, but with Woody Harrelson?” (“Jimmy Flynn: ace American war correspondent.”) I found this to be a really interesting primer on the war in Sarajevo, though when I actually got to Sarajevo, I came to think that some of the real-life stories I heard in museums and documentaries there told a bleaker, stranger, even funnier story — like a man interviewed for a documentary shown at the Museum Of Crimes Against Humanity And Genocide, who shared how he had tried to persuade his friends to bulk up their pets’ food with yeast, something they were reluctant to do: “I told them, your pets are not going to explode. They are not bread.” It’s weird, but one of the best movies about Bosnia I’ve seen was that documentary, full of absolutely WTF moments like how city managers dealt with burials when snipers would shoot gravediggers at work — so that the gravediggers themselves would require another danger-filled burial. (Where to stream)

No Man’s Land (2001)
Directed by Danis Tanović
A sort of morality play investigating what happens when two(/three) soldiers — one Bosnian, one Serb, one maybe-dead — are trapped in a trench separating the opposing forces. In the American version of this movie, those men definitely all become if not friends then respectful warriors, each mindful of the other’s burdens. That … does not happen here. Even the Rotten Tomatoes summary says they “strike up an unlikely friendship” — but I honestly think that’s so much the story we’re accustomed to that this film’s true message — that war is futile, fruitless, and corrupting — is a little lost. No friendships, I think it’s safe to say, were struck here. (Where to stream)


The Bridge on the Drina (1945)
By Ivo Andrić
Andrić won the Nobel prize for this book, which tells the story of the timeless Balkans conflicts through the perspective of … a bridge? On which some people are impaled, and from which others jump to their deaths? It’s all very dramatic and weird and lovely and magical and terrible, and hard to describe, except that it reads like a fairy tale mixed up with a war story, which isn’t that bad a way to sum up the Balkans. Note that some critics have accused Andrić — who was born in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina, came from a Croatian family, and identified as a Serb — of anti-Muslim sentiment (#itscomplicated). Bookshop | Amazon

Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War
By Peter Maass
A brutal, heartbreaking account of, most notably, the siege of Sarajevo and time spent with prisoners of murderous concentration camps — as well as with Bosnian refugees fleeing Serb forces. (There’s also a sad remembrance of Tihomil Tunuković, a Croatian cameraman killed while working with a colleague of the author.) Speaking of that colleague: At one point, Maass is traveling with BBC correspondent Allen Little, and they seem to offer two accounts of meeting the same man — Little’s is a lot: “I asked the man how old he was. He said he was 80. May I ask you, I said, are you a Muslim or a Croat? And the answer he gave me still shames me as it echoes down the decades in my head. I am, he said, a musician.” Bookshop | Amazon

The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War
By Misha Glenny
Glenny is the super-erudite journalist behind the book that became McMafia, the excellent BBC/AMC series about high-end Russian corruption. This book is incredibly dense and knowledgable, and requires a baseline understanding of the conflict that I personally am still acquiring. In other words: It’s great, but also the kind of book where I’m googling every 10 minutes to figure out who Prince Milos Obrenović is. Bookshop | Amazon

Shadowplay: Behind the Lines & Under Fire
By Tim Marshall
Marshall is now well known for his geography/political books like Prisoners of Geography, but in 1999, he was a Sky News reporter covering the Kosovo War. Amazon

Here’s everything I packed for this excellent trip

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