"How to Save a Dead Friend in Montreal"

in 51st Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, Montréal

by Robert Horton

A Russian film in 2022? In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, film festivals grappled with the ethics of including Russian films in their programs. Excluding films from Russia would make a statement. But who is hurt by excluding those films? What if those films are explicitly critical of the Putin regime? Or subversive in ways that weren’t always explicit? And yet, even if a movie does tell truth to power, if the production had received support from official government sources, is the film’s legitimacy tainted by such support?

These kinds of questions swirled around the festival circuit during the year. So perhaps the FIPRESCI award from Montreal’s Festival de Nouveau Cinéma deserves some explanation. Officially, How to Save a Dead Friend is a co-production of Sweden/Norway/France/Germany, although its writer-director, Marusya Syroechkovskaya, is a Moscow native, and the film’s footage is mostly shot in Russia. This is, nonetheless, a thoroughly independent production, laced with criticism of 21st-century Russia and casting an exasperated eye at, among other things, the laughably optimistic New Year’s Eve speeches from Putin and his stand-ins.

Those New Year’s speeches are one of the film’s organizing principles, and make no mistake: Although it is a documentary birthed from many hours of home movies, How to Save a Dead Friend is a beautifully structured and smartly assembled piece of nonfiction storytelling. Syroechkovskaya uses footage shot over more than a decade to tell the story of her bond with Kimi, a friend who became her husband and who then became her friend again after their divorce. We know from the film’s opening sequence that Kimi has died; his struggles with addiction form a large part of the story. Even if this is an intimate documentary, though, Syroechkovskaya never lets us forget the setting, a Russia where futures feel foreshortened and suicide rates among the young are tragically elevated.

In short, this is a movie that brings us a portrait of life on the ground in Russia today, without ever feeling as though it is trying to make a grand statement about life on the ground in Russia today. The portrait emerges organically, from passages of people sitting around their humble apartments and walking through their neighborhoods, along with the occasional political demonstration. The film looks casual, which is one of the ways it sneaks up on you. For instance, at first, we might not guess that Kimi’s older brother, a substance abuser with a jail record, will be anything other than a peripheral character to this story—if you passed him in the street, you might not look twice at him, except to feel a twinge of pity. But the longer the film goes on, the more he emerges as a complicated figure, a curious combination of average doofus and tortured soul.

In one sequence, we watch as the brother sits by a window in one end of a rundown hallway in an apartment building. It’s the place where smokers sit, teasing out the last pull from a cigarette and then stubbing out the butt in a tin can left there for that purpose. It’s a ritual of talking and smoking, a chance to pause and philosophize, even when running on fumes. Elsewhere in the film, Kimi sits in the same spot, smoking and talking and stubbing out his cigarette in the same can. The repetition of that behavior is both moving and alarming, almost novelistic in its power. If Kimi is following the track of his brother, his future feels desperate indeed, and the narrowness of that hallway becomes like a chute through which there’s no escape. (Amazingly, Syroechkovskaya revealed that in recent years the brother has turned his life around, as though simply deciding one day that he was through with drugs and prison—and apparently, that was that.)

Late in the film Syroechkovskaya introduces an urban legend, about how if you stare long enough at the apartment building across the way, you’ll be able to see your own life existing in an alternate universe, one in which things have worked out differently. This taps into the overall sadness of How to Save a Dead Friend, but it also supports a visual motif in which the camera cruises across the anonymous apartment building faces of Moscow, a motif that culminates in the final sequences in a mysterious, moving way. Syroechkovskaya’s story would have been affecting even in an artless kind of homemade documentary; but artfully arranged as it is, it turns into something genuinely haunting.

Robert Horton