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VISIONS DU RÉEL 2022 Competition

Review: How to Save a Dead Friend

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- Raw and moving, Marusya Syroechkovskaya's documentary describes growing up in 21st-century Russia, but is so intimate and honest that it would probably work just as well in a vacuum

Review: How to Save a Dead Friend

How to Save a Dead Friend by Marusya Syroechkovskaya is as raw, honest and moving as its title implies. The director's first feature-length documentary is so integrally and powerfully hers that its setting of growing up in Russia in the 2000s and 2010s becomes almost irrelevant – even though the story is, naturally, inseparable from the social context. The film world-premiered in Visions du Réel’s International Competition and won a Special Mention (see the news).

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Marusya was 16 in 2005. After seeing her film, you feel like she is a friend, so we'll call her by her first name. An aspiring rock musician and a filmmaker, she believed this would be her last year on Earth. Like many of her peers in Russia, which she, with bitter humour and an uncanny articulateness, dubs the "Depression Federation", she had a penchant for drugs and, maybe not like so many others, a propensity for self-harm. But her self-destructive streak will find more than its match in Kimi, a boy one year older. She spends the next 12 years filming their relationship and, when it sputters out, their friendship.

In one of the most lively and relatable voice-overs in recent documentary cinema, she describes the moment they met and how she fell for the Kurt Cobain-like, fellow Joy Division fan. Perhaps Kimi didn't really look that much like Cobain, but the eminently grungy idea of being a disillusioned teen in a society that offers many temptations and no protections certainly leads the viewer to perceive him as such. And the fact that they soon ended up shooting heroin can only cement it.

Marusya comes from a well-off family, Kimi from a middle-class one. Both families seem to have genuinely cared for their kids – Kimi's mum certainly proves it over the course of the film. His father died when he was nine, scarring him for life, and his brother, who is 18 years older, is a long-time addict himself. So it is not poverty, marginalisation or a lack of emotions that drove them to excess. Nor is it simply living in the brutal Russian society, even though Marusya does make a lot of their Moscow neighbourhood, much like people born in the Bronx, Brixton or Belgrade are both proud and disparaging of their place of origin. Instead, it seems like it's the obvious failure of the ideas of progress, future, success and equal rights that led them to where one ended up and the other found an exit.

Stylistically and formally, Marusya's film is a veritable time machine. The mid-aughts period, which is also a time when Marusya and Kimi lived with a cat called Ian (there are at least seven different cats in the film), includes a childish segment made on Windows Movie Maker. The personal is intercut with the social, and time is counted by New Year addresses by Yeltsin (from archive footage), then Putin, Medvedev, Putin, Putin... Images of street protests shot by Marusya herself come in and out, but it feels like we wouldn't be missing much without them.

Having filmed over 12 years, Marusya used many different cameras. It must be to the credit of the post-production crew, and especially Syrian editor Qutaiba Barhamji, who pulled off a similar feat with Little Palestine (Diary of a Siege) [+see also:
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, that the visuals fit together so well and the story flows so smoothly.

The sound design is similarly dense. There is a repeating segment of a pan across a series of apartment blocks accompanied by an intense drone score, reportedly made via a computer programme turning pixels into sounds, and providing an anchor that contrasts with a bunch of loud, grunge, punk and hardcore tracks.

A co-production between Sweden's Sisyfos Film, Docs Vostok, Norway's Folk Film and France's Les Films du Tambour de Soie, with participation from Lyon Capitale TV and Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, in collaboration with ARTE, How to Save a Dead Friend is handled internationally by Switzerland's Lightdox.

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