A descent into the depths of collective delusion, Natalia Sinelnikova’s mesmeric debut, We Might as Well Be Dead, has all the hallmarks of a modern masterpiece. An utterly startling achievement, all the more so given that it sprouted from her studies at Babelsberg Film University and is a graduation project. The film announced Sinelnikova, as a distinctive new force in contemporary cinema. Markedly mature, her effortless ability depicts the societal collapse of a community with a peculiar, uncanny precision: from the insinuations of ambivalent suspicion to the maelstrom of mass paranoia.
With a measured absurdity and an off-kilter tonality, Sinelnikova meditates on the mechanics of fear, doing so with a brave-faced-bravado. Razor sharp throughout, We Might as Well Be Dead, then is a sterilised scalpel cutting right through nerve tissue with a dry satirical smile. Something encapsulated in the menacing, yet completely docile pack of community vigilantes, led by Jörg Schüttauf (who puts in an excellent turn as one of the purveyors of paranoia par excellence). What are they looking for? Who are they afraid of? What dystopian world lies beyond the parameters of their ‘haven’? We will never know, nor are we meant to. Sinelnikova is preoccupied with interior, not exterior horror. And the hysteria of absence, not presence.
The only scene outside of the gated tower block: a smartly-dressed couple and their young son trudging terrified through a forest desperate to reach their destination, a singular spectral high-rise: Phoebus House. Pleading for clemency upon arrival, disavowment requires the renunciation of the self. In return: part of a privileged lot, who find a precarious safety in the structure: where one’s status aligns with their dogmatic engagement with the tower’s somewhat puritanical customs.
The applications are processed by Anna (Ioana Iacob), the security officer and ambient arbiter of issues. The centrifugal force of the film, ostensibly Anna with such responsibility, should be atop the food chain. Yet, she was once an outsider herself (there are allusions to a Jewish heritage).
The disappearance of a dog starts what can only be described as an inverted explosion; a flight into the depths of irrational imagination – all played with a completely straight face. As chaos ensues, Anna must also try to support and be a mother to her daughter Iris, who has locked herself in the bathroom because she has the ‘evil eye’. Is she sick, is she a prophet, or, is she just an imaginative child? Becoming increasingly disillusioned in her attempts to restore calmness to Phobus House, Anna, as she becomes the voice of reason, ends up the voice of treason.
Another stunning directorial debut, Srđan Keča’s haunting documentary Museum of Revolution, is in many ways an antithetical companion to We Might As Well Be Dead. A devastating yet delicate document from the heart of the capitalist periphery – it shows that despite hardships, the world and connection between a struggling mother and her eight year old daughter can still be a magical place.
A patient companion to Vera and her young Millicia is Mara. An old, deaf lady who lives amongst the community of squatters alongside her. We see two women beaten, bruised and broken by their lives – but still not giving up. The documentary shows the profound beauty of the seemingly small, yet shared moments amongst the found family of the women.
The hardship is approached with an empathetic poetry which elevates their depressive reality without leaning into poverty romance. Rather, it steps inside the daily struggles and minor victories. A haunting work about the power of promises and the unfaltering will of those to whom such promises fall short.
- We Might as Well Be Dead ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ Starts Sep 29 D: Natalia Sinelnikova (Germany, Romania 2022)
- Museum of Revolution ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ Starts Sep 1 D: Srdjan Keča (Serbia, Czech Republic, Croatia 2022)