pourquoi? parce que

Goodbye, How Are You? ***

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We couldn’t choose between Eastern and Western civilization, so we came to a compromise: we will be uncivilized.

Goodbye How Are YouBoris Mitic is the one-man band behind Goodbye, How Are You?, the latest of his avante-garde literary documentaries from Serbia. It is a study of the impact war and political strife have on culture and language. An essay film in 24 scenes, Mitic describes it as “satirical verité” or a “visual anthology of applied aphorisms“: an attempt to translate the popular Slavic literary form of satirical aphorism into cinema. These aphorisms are very short texts, revealing a hidden truth behind familiar conceptions, by way of a subversive twist: an unorthodox commentary which circumnavigates moralizing didactics through black humour, sarcasm but humanism. As literature or film, these texts necessarily demand audience engagement: we have to solve the puzzle to appreciate its meaning (you are not appreciating the work if you don’t know why you are laughing). This makes for compelling viewing, although often too intense and slightly lost in translation.

What Mitic actually does is take his favourite images (derived from a personal passion for filming and photographing bizarre juxtapositions – poetic, metaphorical, contradictory, absurd – across thousands of kilometers of former Yugoslavia) and marry them to his favourite literature. And so he needed a story to string these disparate forms together, and he hung it around his arrangement, in an effort to conjure some sort of indirect, aphoristic commentary. Unfortunately it often seems like there is a real disconnect between images and words whose relationship is, at best, coincidental. When Mitic uses newsreels to contextualise his semantic duels, it is far more effective than when he draws on his own back catalogue of oddities. The story employs a character based on conventions from some of Mitic’s favourite writing, and then develops the idea of political duels fought in language as a driving force behind the narrative. This narrative is the core of the work, and is deliberately designed to sound factual while being entirely fictitious (while the images are intended to be unbelievable yet true). Focusing on Serbia is a sensible creative limitation, and allows the story to unfold around cynical adages on Serbian corruption and conflict.

They are applying a sticks and carrots policy with us. First they beat us with sticks, then with carrots.

Goodbye How Are You2The point of Goodbye, How Are You? is to explore the nature of the aphorism, as it airs grievances which can no longer be settled with honour and dignity. The narrator, and the aphorists, must resort to subversion and misanthropy. His self-consciousness and tinge of poetic madness, alongside a preoccupation with culture-clashes, recalls the Count of Russian Ark. His points are more explicit, however. Resistance can only persist in language – no more rabble-rousing, no more vain efforts to counteract the propaganda machine. It is post-political writing, whose self-depracating asides acknowledge the abuse of power and the self-defeating passivity of the Slavic intellectual élite as they retreat into irony. As its writers cannot change anything, instead they try to reclaim their souls by writing to provoke: they discover freedom in skepticism and humour; they aspire to make the perfect comment on imperfect paradoxes.

The aphorisms of Yugoslavia and Poland are not as widely recognised as the great twentieth-century literary form that they might be, and this seems to drive Mitic as a student of culture and politics. These regions were the perfect environment to foster such works, under oppressive communist regimes but with sufficient minor freedoms to allow such resistance to blossom. Emerging in the 1960s, such word games grew up as an antidote to propaganda, and foremost among their practitioners were the Belgrade Aphoristic Circle, whose works form the backbone of Goodbye, How Are You. In Serbia, intense competition and inspiration between writers, and a rapid succession of political, social and economic extremes, led to this strongest of traditions. Their terse, paradoxical writing was perfectly pitched to use its brevity and ease of access to its advantage against the lumbering behemoth of state propaganda. Mitic now feels this is the most suitable form of artistic expression in his country.

I think, therefore I exist. In their files. I think differently, therefore I don’t exist.

A labour of love, Goodbye, How Are You? is fascinating, but indulgent and impenetrable: for those willing to join the quest for perfect comment on insoluble paradoxes, deeply rewarding.


Goodbye, How Are You?, Dir. & Writ. Boris Mitic, Dribbling Pictures, Serbia, 2009


Written by James P. Campbell

25/06/2009 at 00:30

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