‘I thought people killing themselves was a normal part of life’: Marusya Syroechkovskaya casts a heartbreaking spell with her film How to Save a Dead Friend, a tale of love, addiction and redemption in Russia
Marusya Syroechkovskaya is living between film festivals. Having fled her home in Russia when the tanks rolled into Ukraine, the 33-year-old filmmaker took her feature debut, How to Save a Dead Friend, to Switzerland for its world premiere at the Visions du Réel festival last month. Now it’s screening as part of the Acid Film strand in Cannes, and she’s still no closer to working out where to call home. “I’m just going from festival to festival with all my bags from Russia,” she says. “It’s a bit scary to think I will never go back and see my parents and grandparents, so I’m trying not to think these thoughts for now.”
In many ways, Syroechkovskaya’s estrangement from what she calls the “depression federation” began many years ago, as a self-harming teen shooting home videos that captured the dispiriting day-to-day business of being a young person in Russia. “In 2005, I was 16, and I was positive it was my last year on Earth,” she reveals at the start of her film, just before salvation arrives in the form of Kimi, a kindred spirit with lanky-blonde Kurt Cobain locks and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Joy Division back catalogue. The pair soon become inseparable, until Kimi’s crystal meth and heroin addictions spiral out of control and Syroechkovskaya must become reconciled to the possibility of life without the troubled soulmate who came to her rescue.
Syroechkovskaya unfurls her story over a ten-year period in which the forces of nationalism and state repression become resurgent once more in Russia; in one of the many scenes in the film that powerfully elide the personal and the political, Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” plays on the soundtrack while police scramble to intercept a man scattering pamphlets from the roof of a shop. (The song’s central refrain returns to haunt the film later in the movie, when Marusya traces Kimi’s outline on an app that turns images into music.) At a time when Russia stands to become more isolated than ever on the world stage, it’s a story that demands to be heard: an act of love disguised as a diary of heartbreak and despair.
Marusya, this film is obviously a deeply personal project for you; what’s it been like watching it back?
Marusya Syroechkovskaya: I kind of let it go a bit; I don’t get as emotional [watching it] as when I started working on the material, but I usually don’t watch it with everyone because at the end of the film it’s very hard. Any time Kimi is sad, it’s painful watching him like that. I feel more empathetic towards him on the screen than myself, when I see myself on the screen it’s like it’s not fully me, maybe because I’m not used to seeing myself from the outside.
Why did you start making these videos?
Marusya Syroechkovskaya: I think it’s probably because I couldn’t express the feelings [I was having]. Depression is such an isolating illness. I used the camera as a way to communicate with the world, to make sense of what was going on with me and the world around me. After screenings, I’ve had so many people come up to me and say they’ve experienced the same, or now they understand what their friend with depression was going through. It gives so much strength to realise that maybe these people don’t feel as lonely as I felt back then. And also I don’t feel so alone!
You say you felt isolated, but one of the shocking things about the film is how universal depression seemed to be in your world as a teenager. There’s that line where you say, ‘One by one, my friends were all killing themselves.’
Marusya Syroechkovskaya: Yeah, because I thought this was just life and people just kill themselves; it’s a normal [part] of life. Not one of us was able to communicate how we felt.
Kimi was in and out of psychiatric wards towards the end of his life. You say you spent time in one of these institutions as a teenager, what was that like?
Marusya Syroechkovskaya: I felt like I was being punished for being depressed. I’d been trying to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol and whatever I could lay my hands on, and my parents got really scared of what was happening to me. So they just put me in a mental institution, and I think this is one of the reasons it took me so long to get help, because I was scared of this punitive psychiatry in a way. It felt like my voice didn’t matter; I just had to take my meds. It’s like Kimi says in the film, you take your meds and say you’re all right just to get out of there as soon as possible, and this is exactly what I did.
Do you think your parents’ generation struggled with the same problems? Or is it something that is much more widespread now?
Marusya Syroechkovskaya: I think maybe it just feels this way because people talk more about it. People are more open to sharing their experiences now, [partly] because of the internet and social media. For my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, there was a lot of stigma about seeing a psychiatrist. In Soviet times they used punitive psychiatry on people who were against the regime – they put them in mental institutions gave them meds until they were in this vegetable state. And so it still has this scary aspect, like they will take all your rights away in these places. But I felt that what Kimi said [about just taking your meds] mirrored the situation in Russia in general, because that’s what our authorities want people to do, be silent, say that everything is fine, don’t act up, don’t complain, don’t protest.
The film unfolds against the wider political context of Russian life over the last ten years, why did you choose to present your story this way?
Marusya Syroechkovskaya: Because these things didn’t happen in a vacuum, and I think the background of what happened in Russia over these years affected me and Kimi also. It made so much sense to show what was happening, to show this level of aggression in the outside world [in Russia during this time], because it affected our lives.
How did you observe the country changing over this time?
Marusya Syroechkovskaya: It became more repressive. There are definitely less freedoms now in Russia, especially since the war started, you should be very careful what you write on the internet. They just banned Facebook and Instagram, declaring them extremist companies.
Obviously, you couldn’t have known the political situation your film would be released into when you were making it. Are you wary of being asked to be a spokesperson for your country?
Marusya Syroechkovskaya: I’m happy to share my experiences and explain what young people of my generation went through, because [I feel like] people outside of Russia maybe don’t know so much [about] what happened in the country over these years. I mean, I can’t speak for everyone, but I think that my story is not so unique, unfortunately.
Kimi talks about feeling a sense of betrayal in the film, in terms of his feelings towards Russia.
Marusya Syroechkovskaya: He told me that he felt pretty hopeless, that he didn’t feel like he could change anything. I think [part of that] came from this self-stigmatisation of people who are doing drugs, [where] you feel like it’s not worth fighting for your rights, and you are rightfully punished for the things you do.
The film contains footage of you at a rally protesting the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny, was political engagement a part of your own recovery from depression, in a way?
Marusya Syroechkovskaya: Yeah, I guess so. I think on the one hand filming actually helped me, because it helped me to make sense of what was happening around me, to structure my life in a way. But I also participated in all these anti-government protests. I felt like maybe I could change something; it gave me this feeling that there is some hope.
Will the film be shown in Russia?
Marusya Syroechkovskaya: I would really like to screen it in Russia; that would be important for me. But I would have to apply for this screening permit and for this I would have to get rid of all the cursing [and] all the mentions of drugs. Also, there is this shot of Kimi pictured as Jesus when you see the title of the film; he’s cooking up heroin and this is a criminal offense [in Russia] – ‘offending religious feelings’, they call it. Since the war started there are so many more rules, and the people who watch these films to give them this permit are more strict. Maybe if there’s some VOD platform, I dunno. It’s kind of unpredictable because everything inside of Russia changes so quickly; I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Do you worry about how the war will affect your ability to tell the kinds of stories you want to in the future?
Marusya Syroechkovskaya: It already affects me since I had to leave and I don’t know where I will stay, so right now my next project is to find the place where I live. But also it’s a bit scary to think I will never go back and see my parents and grandparents, so I’m trying not to think these thoughts for now. I mean, I still have my home, it’s just in an oppressive state – a lot of people from Ukraine don’t have a literal home to go back to.
Lastly, I guess you’ll never know if 2005 would have been your last year on Earth if you hadn’t met Kimi. Do you really believe that he saved your life?
Marusya Syroechkovskaya: Yeah, absolutely. I just felt so lonely, and when I met him I saw that he was maybe going through more or less the same things as me. I still didn’t have the words but I felt that he knew; he mirrored me in a way. I felt that I wasn’t alone in this.
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