In Western European tradition, war and strife was exercised through the catharsis of
tragedy. Subject matter typically, though not always, dictated the tone of national literature. But
where the national epics of the Western Greco-Roman world are weighty fare, Eastern Europe
tended towards dark, satirical humour in their fiction; the Czech epic The Good Soldier Švejk,
for example, deals with the horror and pointlessness of war in a series of absurd, satirical
sketches. This humour, prevalent throughout Slavic countries, appears in its most distilled form
in Serbia, where aphorisms are both an observational and a reflective art. And there’s been no
shortage of motivation for their use in the past few decades.
In Goodbye, How Are You?, director Boris Mitić appropriates classic Serbian aphorisms
to serve as the narration tying together the loose images of post-war Serbia that make up his 60-minute film; in fact, the images are so scattered and unconnected it’s often described as a
slideshow rather than a movie.
This structure provides the ideal foundation to make the film a sort of piercing collection. It’s useful that Mitić opens the film with grave music and some of the darkest humour—”I have reached the point where I’ll die for what I believe in; thank God I don’t believe in anything anymore”—before a lilting polka becomes the engine of the collage.
The aphorisms range from light-hearted—“my wife and I are also organized criminals: I
steal bread in one shop, she steals milk in another”—to darkly clever—“either I will be a
marionette or my life will hang by a thread”—to the blackest humour, as in one used to describe
the shelling of the enemy in the Bosnian war—“we don’t have blood on our hands; there was
blood only up to the knees.”
Mitić’s images show a country still recovering from the war, where hope is a fickle thing
and where, he says in his deep deadpan, a black cat crosses your path and then dies the next day.
And while the writing does most of the perceptive work, Mitić also uses a couple visual motifs to
buttress aphoristic brickwork.
Cars are a constant feature in the images, yet they are never moving and often appear
trapped. A car is suspended on a pole; another, its hood crumpled and rusted, is seen wedged
between a highway rail and a rock face. Cars are used as shelters, as shops, and as podiums. And as usual, there’s an aphorism to flesh this out: “I never got to challenge [my friend] to a duel. He was arrested because he double parked. Such a thing can’t go unpunished in this country.”
The film moves quickly; each scene darts past before being discarded in favour of the
next tightly packaged observation. There is no sentence or specific thought that lasts more than
two dozen words in the entirety of the film, and while groups of two or three shots seem disconnected, groups of 10 or more start to show strong thematic ties.
Seeing black humour applied to a specific historical event, rather than the broad concepts
of war or politics at which it’s usually targeted, amplifies both of its edges; the laugh up front is
heartier, and the proceeding disquiet is more cringeworthy. Laughing at a screen displaying the
real ravages of a real war creates a tension foreign to documentary, impressive for a form that
builds on diverse tensions.
Because each of Mitić’s one-liners refuses to build on the last, their humour stays with you only until the next. The disillusionment and despair of the film, however, stays with you long after the screen goes as black as the humour.
Goodbye, How Are You? is showing on April 2 at 7 p.m. in H-110. Check out www.cinemapolitica.org/concordia for more details.