Marusya Syroechkovskaya’s gritty and gut-wrenching documentary How To Save A Dead Friend gives insight into the life of Russian millennials, who arrived into adulthood under an autocratic regime. The film will open the 30th anniversary of the Rendezvous With Madness festival, the largest and longest-running arts festival in the world dedicated to the intersection of mental health and artistic expression. 

When Marusya was 16, she often thought about killing herself. The dark thoughts didn’t strike her as odd, because the feeling of hopelessness was a sentiment shared by most of her friends and peers. At a young age, she picked up her camera as a way to survive. “I filmed so much because I was depressed and I didn’t know how to communicate it. The camera made sense of what was happening to me, it was my tool of communication,” Marusya tells me. 

She was pretty sure her 16th year would be her last, but then she met Kimi, and fell in love. Like her, Kimi struggled to see a future in Russia. The two shared a dark sense of humour and comforted each other in a bleak world that was difficult to understand. During their relationship, Marusya often had the camera on, filming snippets of their life together, both the warm and tender moments, cozy in bed with their cats, and also the difficult moments, like when Kimi was getting high, or seeking his next fix. 

“Sometimes it gave me a feeling like a shield,” Marusya says, explaining how the camera acted as a buffer for real-life hardships. “If I was in a difficult situation, filming it made it less real. When I was filming Kimi in the mental institution, seeing him be there in such a state was really hard. The filming protected me, in a way.”

How To Save A Dead Friend is filmed over the course of 12 years. Kimi doesn’t make it, but the film celebrates who he was as a person. “I want to tell the world who Kimi was. He was my husband and my best friend. He wasn’t perfect, he had flaws like every human does, but I really liked him. It would be so nice if he could know that he is kind of traveling around the world.”

The film has screened in festivals all over, including France, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Israel, Bulgaria, Portugal, and now Canada. How To Save A Dead Friend is about Marusya and Kimi, but it also reveals what life in Russia has looked like for young adults under Vladimir Putin’s regime. The film was completed in 2021, and so much has happened since that time, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the drafting of thousands of young men into a war they do not want to fight.

‘I’m trying to read less news,” says Marusya, when I ask her how she copes today. “It’s really hard to not get depressed over what is happening right now, in Russia and what Russia is doing. There’s this feeling of uncertainty about the future. It’s quite depressing to think that you couldn’t prevent all of this from happening, no matter what you did all your life. I just hope that my film will add to the understanding that Ukraine should be supported in this fight against Putin and his regime.”

Most of the world doesn’t know what daily life in Russia looks like, and Marusya is incredibly brave to show what she does. But making this film is also something she had to do. “It was eating me up from the inside, the urge to tell this story. I had this feeling that I had to tell it,” she explains. 

Although she never premeditated it, the camera became a crucial tool that helped lift her from her depression. It also became a vehicle that physically moved her out of Russia, presenting her with a sense of purpose and a path forward.

Her portrait of Kimi also brings forth understanding about addiction, and how shame can prevent people from seeking the help they need. “Drug addiction and drug use is very stigmatized in Russia. It’s really hard to get help if you have problematic drug use. From this stigmatization comes self-stigmatization from drug users. For instance, Kimi used to say that he cannot ask for his life to be better because he’s doing drugs – so in a way, he’s not worth a better life. It’s a destructive way of dealing with drug users.”

The film resonates with a lot of people for different reasons. Marusya loves the connection that happens at post-screening Q&As. When I ask her if there is one common reaction to the film, she pauses to think, and then smiles and says, “A lot of people just give me a hug after the screening.”

While she won’t be in attendance for the Rendezvous With Madness opening night screening, she feels very grateful to have the film screen in Toronto, and is excited to Zoom in for the Q&A. The theme of this year’s festival is #MoreThanRebellion, or a tearing down of broken systems in favour of generational change. Marusya’s film couldn’t be more spot on. She is a rebel with a big heart, and How To Save a Dead Friend is a desperate cry from a generation of Russian youth that has been silenced.