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DOC NYC Film Review: ‘How to Save a Dead Friend’ Is a Heartrending Snapshot of Modern Russia

With a title like How to Save a Dead Friend, Marusya Syroechkovskaya‘s achingly personal documentary declares its foreboding before its tragic story unfolds. Yet viewers may still not be prepared for the raw power of this Russian time capsule, which follows an ill-fated relationship between two young lovers from 2005 to 2016. Part carefree coming-of-ager, part romance, part social commentary, How to Save a Dead Friend is a disquieting immersion into the world of a tormented generation.

If you thought the title’s reference to a dead friend was just a metaphor, Syroechkovskaya quickly dismisses that notion in the film’s opening sequences. We are instantly confronted with tearful burial scenes, including a mournful Syroechkovskaya herself. Soon, we are introduced to the identity of the deceased, as the film flashes back to the start of a love affair between Syroechkovskaya and a young man named Kimi. But as narrated by Syroechkovskaya, their love could never fit the fairytale dream, as they were part of a generation who suffered in a country they renamed the “Depression Federation.”

It’s not all “doom and gloom”, however, as the first half of the film bears a comparatively hopeful tone. As Syroechkovskaya socializes with Kimi and their friends, the film is energized by the fast-cutting editing style, bright scrapbook-like graphics and uptempo rock soundtrack. Indeed, you may even question Syroechkovskaya early prophesy of impending death, in line with the high suicide rates among her peers.

The harsh reality behind this pessimism gradually reveals itself, however, as Syroechkovskaya points an unflinching eye towards her generation’s destructive behaviour exacerbated by an increasingly oppressive political environment. Captured via handheld camcorder over 10 years, there’s a devastating rawness to the images of drug use and a lingering melancholy as we witness these darkening personalities coming of age. And though she doesn’t fully explain how the political climate – acknowledged through excerpts of televised civil unrest and presidential speeches – has failed them, her perceptive narration and committed camerawork make the effect plain to see.

At once deeply personal and socially relevant, How to Save a Dead Friend is a powerful statement on the wayward trajectory of contemporary Russian society and its youth. Even its buoyant moments – soccer celebrations, revelry on the dance floor and the genuine love expressed between its protagonists – further underline the tragedy of innocence and hope lost. Some may dispute the objectivity behind this unflattering portrait of her homeland. But in revealing her truth, Syroechkovskaya has crafted an incisive and memorable piece of non-fiction filmmaking.

SCORE: ★★★


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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for, and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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