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Natalia Sinelnikova on the horror and humour of We Might As Well Be Dead

We talk to Berlin-based director Natalia Sinelnikova about her deadpan, dystopian debut feature We Might As Well Be Dead, an odyssey into the inner mechanisms of fear and collective paranoia, set in an isolated tower block.

The ambient horror and humour of We Might As Well Be Dead. Photo: Heartwake films

We Might As Well Be Dead is a very singular film in its style, straight faced yet outlandish. What directors do you feel have had the strongest influence on your work?

It always changes, but I really love the work of Yorgos Lanthinmos, David Lynch and masters like Luis Buñuel. I love familiar things feeling unfamiliar. Recently, I also watched a couple of Mexican films like Heli by Amat Escalante. It’s amazing! It feels so real and brutal, but something is always shifting. It’s very dense. But amazingly it remains funny.

That’s definitely something apparent in your work – the way deadpan black humour interplays with absurdity, and it works!

Yes! I love when it is like this. I love sitting in the cinema, watching films that are funny, but which hurt. And I think, yeah, this is the best. Despite the painful nature of the humour – it cuts through… But yeah, this is a goal.

What does paranoia really look like? When you strip it back, where does it come from?

The Greek Weird Wave comparisons are inevitable but the film navigates its own path… For me, your work is akin to Yorgos Lanthinmos’s Dogtooth (2009), in which the internal world is controlled and information is manipulated. Through the isolation new language forms and the fear is specific to that strange world…

Yes. This was all about how the characters talk to one another, they’re always very careful. The language reflects this. Everything needed to be feel (un)safe, a reflection of the contained, strange dialectics of the cut-off community. The characters have been living within the tower block for a very long time, isolated from the outside world.

There’s a striking scene that captures the film’s ambient horror and humour: the block’s residents are wandering around, crazed with golf clubs… How scary, laughable and somehow existential – they’re wandering around looking for, well… nothing?

Ah, the golf club – funny you noticed! My production assistant and I were thinking how could
we translate wealth visually. Then, they came up with the idea of golf, a very expensive sport. We thought, how can we explore this? And of course, A Clockwork Orange was an important reference point. A golf club is a sign of privilege and acceptance, a small yet powerful symbol.

Your film is often referred to as a satire. Yet it doesn’t seem like you are trying to type-cast characters or to represent society. Instead, it feels like you’re looking to explore fear itself…

Oh, thank you. This really means a lot. You know, they always have to sell you with a label, in this case they said: this is satire. But you’re right: it was clear I wanted to play with the thriller genre and the theme of fear. There is a lot of talk about it, but it was so fun to make a story about fear. Again it’s great to work with genre rules: to (re)invent them, break them, and use them to tell something else.

We Might As Well Be Dead skillfully prioritises absence over presence: the community fears what they cannot see, what they don’t know. We never really see any of what happened outside the tower gates, the horror is internal…

Exactly! It’s about making promises about absence; creating this space for the audience to experience. Everything about absence is about people filling the void with their own fears. It is like fear, it is fear itself. It’s a projection, right? An interactive way to make cinema. When fear becomes real, it’s no longer fear, it’s panic. For example, the scene when Anna sees the poet, who has obviously been beaten up. There is an ambivalence and unknown quantity, yet, undeniably, it is something violent that has happened. She is afraid, but it is very frightening in different ways.

Paranoia, the collective psychology behind it, is clearly a trope of your film. Is that something you were particularly interested in exploring?

Few works expose what is underneath paranoia, you know? What does paranoia really look like? When you strip it back, where does it come from? If ten people all look in the same direction and one person decides to look the other way – how can they explain the unseen to those who refuse to look? In the tower, the refusal is about the fear of expulsion.

The location of the brutalist Ballardian Towers is striking. Did you have a particular aesthetic reference point?

The characters have been living within the tower block for a very long time, isolated from the outside world.

I had a broad scope when looking for pictures and locations. Of course, the brutalist influence was there. We also had a really low budget! We used some visual effects with an artist who built a model of the tower, the one you see in the opening shot. The swimming pool, gates, the house – they are all different locations. Also, we wanted the setting to feel slightly reminiscent of a hotel, or a resort.

Anna [played by Ioana Iacob] is a revelation as the rational security officer in a high rise tower block. How did you find her?

We were looking for a very long time, up until two months before we shot it! Something wasn’t working, so I gave it one more week in which time my casting director sent me her name. I just felt it. I knew Ioana would be the one.

BIO: St. Petersburg-born Natalia Sinelnikova is a Berlin-based freelance director and screenwriter, who emigrated from Russia to Germany in 1996. In 2021, she was selected for the ZFF Academy of the Zurich Film Festival. We Might As Well Be Dead is Sinelnikova’s master’s project and opened the Perspektive Deutsches Kino section at this year’s Berlinale.