“Russia is for Russians!” goes the rallying cry of the far right. To which Marusya replies: “Bullshit. Russia is for depressed people.” She should know: Moscow-born Marusya Syroechkovskaya spent a dozen years pointing her camera (multiple cameras, actually) at herself and her co-credited cameraperson and best friend (turned lover, became husband, ex) Kimi Morev. The two met as suicidal teenagers in their nation’s capital in the 1920s, both part of the “silenced generation” spiral under Putin. They shocked each other by deciding to stay a while to see how their story, and perhaps that of their anti-authoritarian compatriots, would turn out. (That said, Soulmates actually didn’t take notice in the late 2000s. As the director laments, “It’s just like they turned into a bad trip.”)
Surprisingly for a film that takes an unflinching look at mental illness and addiction in the ‘Federation of Depression’ – and is significantly titled How to save a dead friend—the story is about unbridled joie de vivre as much as it is about ultimate self-destruction. Indeed, the document moves as fast and intoxicating as its post-punk and grunge soundtrack. It is also infused with kaleidoscopic imagery that is unexpectedly reminiscent of the work of Gregg Araki. (In addition to the New Queer Cinema icon, Syroechkovskaya has also cited Harmony Korine and David LaChapelle’s artwork as touchstones.) Through the drinking and the snorting, the injection and the cut, one love remained eternal that would tear them apart. (Of course, Joy Division also features prominently in their lives, as evidenced by the cat they’ve decided to name Ian.) This feature-length resurrection also endures, the sweetest of requiems for a generation with no future.
A few days before How to save a dead friendDOC NYC and IDFA Debuts by , Movie director reached out to the award-winning director, visual artist and voice of the exiled opposition, who fled her homeland in March when the Russian hammer struck.
Movie director: This film is such an intimate journey into the lives of two people, one of whom has no say in the project. How did you decide which footage to include or edit in the final cut?
Syroechkovskaya: I made this film out of love for someone I couldn’t save. I tried to save a memory of Kimi; I didn’t want her voice to get lost and disappear. I think you won’t leave as long as people remember you.
I didn’t want to include any footage where Kimi is totally out of his mind, consumed by drugs or looking defeated. This is not how I want people to remember Kimi. I wanted the audience to see it with my own eyes, to see a person I loved very much, who had his strengths and weaknesses like every other human being.
Movie director: While it’s not common for documentary filmmakers to cite Gregg Araki as an inspiration, his influence on How to save a dead friend it’s really noticeable, as is Harmony Korine’s. Were there specific films and bands that you looked up to as a model? What other forms of media have driven your vision?
Syroechkovskaya: I wanted to save time and space and the things that shaped Kimi and me growing up. How to save a dead friend is also a tribute to the films of Gregg Araki (the “Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy”, but above all Non-existent place), Harmony Korine (julien boy-ass) and the artwork of David LaChapelle. It’s also a tribute to a lot of music, from post-punk and grunge to emo and witch house, and Windows Movie Maker transitions, web aesthetics and internet forums, when the internet wasn’t controlled by corporations yet and government censored, a place where you can express yourself freely and find belonging, occupying your dial-up for hours.
Movie director: Having read that there are a whopping 700 cuts in the film, I’m quite curious about the editing process, including working with your Syrian-born director/editor Qutaiba Barhamji, whose work spans multiple languages and genres. How did you meet and how did you approach the daunting task of weaving together footage shot with so many different cameras?
Syroechkovskaya: Qutaiba and I met while he was working on a mid-length project I was producing. I knew right away that I would love to work with him on my future film. What I like about his approach is that he always works for the film that the director wants to make. He talks a lot with the directors, then it’s about translating the director’s vision during the editing process. I actually approached him before there was any co-production or financing in place. I was thrilled when Qutaiba told me that he fell in love with this project and agreed to work with me.
The main creative challenge was that the material I had didn’t have to become a film as it was being shot. There are so many different formats, cameras, mediums and frame rates. At first we had no idea where to start or how to approach the material. Honestly, that’s what I like about working on creative documentaries, and I find it very exciting. We experimented a lot: tempo, pace, dramaturgy and how to build the distance between me as a director and me as a character.
Another challenge was COVID, of course. It took six months to edit the film. Qutaiba was in Paris and I was in Moscow, so we edited most of the film via Skype. It wasn’t an easy task. You know how you can’t interrupt each other on Skype because then no one hears anything? So, we really couldn’t argue. Luckily, we had our last editing session in person in Norway and had enough time to argue, cry and interrupt each other. The last session was much more productive!
Movie director: Since I’m not familiar with the Voice of Sisyphus Image Sonification (VOSIS) app you used, I’m very curious to learn more about that as well. How did you get in touch with its developer, Dr. Ryan McGee, and how did you use him throughout the film?
Syroechkovskaya: I had this idea of turning Kimi’s videos into music and sound. I thought of it as a poetic way of imagining what happens to us when we are gone. I’d like to imagine Kimi turning into music. I’ve also heard that this is a metaphor for cinema in general: you touch something at a distance, through a screen, and from this touch something else is born.
I knew I needed a sonification schedule, so I started researching online. This is how I came across VOSIS. I liked the interface and sound, but it was only made for live video and still images. So I contacted Ryan, the developer, and told him about my film. I asked him if he would be willing to share the source code with me so I could make some changes to the app. Although he wasn’t comfortable with it, he really liked the project and instead he offered to help me. Together we experimented a lot with the look of the app, how it works and the features it has. You can actually download a free version of VOSIS on the App Store and there is also a pro version that you can purchase.
Movie director: Although you had to flee Russia last March, I imagine you are still busy with the opposition movement both there and abroad. Has your activism work increased or perhaps changed in any particular way? You are using How to save a dead friend how platform?
Syroechkovskaya: I travel a lot with my film and I feel it’s my responsibility, especially now, not to remain silent. So, I try to use my film as a platform to create more discussion.
How to save a dead friend shows the consequences of Putin’s playbook to isolate the Russian people. From the very beginning, Putin was working on how to control a huge population so he could do as he pleased. One such method is to gaslight the whole country isolating it from the rest of the world. What this film can help explain is what such isolation from the global community can do to a population and what it can do to new generations. I believe that sometimes a film can be simpler than words. Sometimes, all you need is to see what life is like under a dictatorship to know that there is no future in any totalitarian state.
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