Imagine my chagrin when, three-quarters of the way through Goodbye, How Are You? (a.k.a. Aphocalypse Now), Boris Mitic’s superb “satirical documentary fairy tale” featuring the aphorisms of the Belgrade Aphoristic Circle, the following message appeared on my screen: “SKIPPING DAMAGED AREA”. At first, I thought this must be a reference to some dark episodes from Boris’s past, or perhaps to the Balkans itself, which Boris traversed during a three-year, 50,000 km-trip to compile the images for his film and which is still hurting from the 1990s wars. But no, it simply meant that there was something wrong with my DVD, so I have still not seen the end of the film, which somehow seems fitting for a documentary about forsaken hopes and damaged dreams…
Boris himself is most eloquent in explaining the background to his film: “An aphorism, as defined and practiced in Serbia, is a short, sharp, linguistically effective sentence or two which imperatively contains an unexpectedly subversive twist that describes in a most striking, clairvoyant way the hidden truth of some common social matters or states of mind. What makes Serbian aphorisms different from classic proverbs is their killer dose of black humor, satire and merciless sarcasm that still conveys a strong humanistic message.” Some examples from the film’s aphoristic narration, which braids together aphorisms from members of the Belgrade Aphoristic Circle with the tale of “a hero of our time who would die for what he believes in but doesn’t believe in anything anymore”:
When a boomerang leaves this place, it never returns.
The minister is taking the weekend off; that’s his contribution to fighting corruption.
They are taking a stick-and-carrot approach: First they beat us with sticks, and then with carrots.
We wanted to fight til the last man, but there were not enough of us.
At any given moment we know what we want, we just don’t know when that moment is.
The longer the war, the closer the peace.
Not only are the aphorisms great, but the collage of images that make up Goodbye, How Are You? are visual aphorisms in themselves, following all of the Five Laws of the Aphorism: They are short (each image lasts no more than a few seconds but achieves a startling effect by being juxtaposed with other, absurdly apt images); they are definitive (the vignettes are blunt and graphic—a tractor dragging a corpse down a street, a boy resting in an armchair as a village burns around him); they are personal (Boris’s unfailing eye for the surreal aspects of the real is evident throughout); they are philosophical (each image elaborates on the narrated text but also takes it off into different philosophical directions, such as the shot of statues of Snow White and one dwarf decorating a home that slowly pulls back to reveal a statue of the Buddha sitting beside them); and they have a twist (each and every image conceals an “unexpectedly subversive twist”, like the shot of a black cat who had its reputation for bad luck reversed when it got squashed on a busy street).
Aphorisms lodge themselves in our minds through their brilliant, startling imagery and subtle meanings; Boris Mitic’s film will lodge there for exactly the same reasons.