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Barbican Chronic Youth Festival: How to Save a Dead Friend and Conversation with Programmers

How To Save a Dead Friend is a documentary film by Marusya Syroechkovskaya, consisting of home footage spanning multiple years in her formative life, with particular focus on her relationship with Kimi Morev, her lover and partner until his death. The film discusses art and life and how those two are intertwined, amid a backdrop of politics and personal identity, and, ultimately, the human connection that stems from that. After the screening, I sat down to talk with programmers George and Sagal about their experience working at the Barbican Chronic Youth Festival and How to Save a Dead Friend.

Could you briefly describe what a programmer is and your experience so far being one?

George: My name is George, I’m a programmer here at the Chronic Youth and I love film. I think there is an art to curation and something powerful in it. People go to festivals buying tickets in good faith, they don’t know quite what they’re seeing because it’s not released, it’s not been out for long. So, I enjoy taking that faith and hopefully rewarding them with an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s what curation is for me, what draws me towards this, and why I enjoy it so much.

Sagal: I’m Sagal. I’m new to the world of programming in terms of cinema, so it’s been interesting getting to learn from industry folks. To me, it was about what communities we want to attract and how we want to build community with what we’re doing. With Chronic Youth, it’s an eclectic group of films and people, giving us space for the voices and stories from the filmmakers and the people within that we’ve been able to help elevate by letting them have that space here, which is exciting.

Are there specific things, such as themes or styles, in films that would make you want them as part of a line-up you’d curate?

Sagal: For me this process has shown me that I need to just be more open. There’s just so many things that I maybe wouldn’t have had access to or been as receptive to just out of my own personal interest.

George: That’s really the strength of having a board made of fifteen young people, we represent a really wide variety of tastes. Each of the films present themselves very differently and no two films we have on are the same, or the same style. They’re each unique. For all the butting heads involved in the process, and nights pitting films against each other, I believe what’s come out is the best that it could be and represents the diversity, background, tastes, and experience of the whole cohort.

Image Courtesy of Barbican Chronic Youth Festival

From what I’ve seen, this film was only released last year after being filmed over a decade ago. How did you come across this film, what drew you to program it, and could you describe what the process of getting it to the Barbican was?

George: Quite early in the process, we had a divide and conquer strategy: we’d split each week into rotating groups of three and each member would have to find one film. Hester Yang, who has done incredible work for this festival, found How To Save a Dead Friend and I was genuinely blown away. I had never seen anything like it, it moved me so much and I knew that I wanted it to be part of the festival, not just because I liked it, but it was guerrilla, DIY filmmaking – Marusya made this film with pretty bare-bones equipment – which would inspire people about their ability to make a film, and because it was a snapshot of a time and place and speaks to a universal experience of love; we’ve all loved and lost, we’ve all had our hearts broken; that’s the core of this film and why it was able to connect so well.

One of the first scenes is a flash-forward: it is of the funeral of the director’s lover, and arguably the lynchpin on which the film rests. It is his funeral, and we know from the beginning the inevitable end. We hear the platitudes that hint at the misery and suffering we are soon to see Marusya and Kimi endure, and we empathise with them, we feel for them, and yet in spite of knowing to maintain a sort of distance, we can’t help but be swept along and want better and hoping against what has already come to pass. Through moments of human connection, riding on waves of their exhilaration, their joys and pains, learning with them, we cannot help but become part of them, and this meditation on human experience is what is at the core of living, and for that we can’t help but be invested in and want the best for them.

This ties into what you said earlier but do you think that there is something about this film that you think will speak to much of today’s youth, especially in light of the themes it deals with?

Sagal: Yeah, the film touches heavily on mental health and drug addiction and the experience of growing up and finding your own way, which is universal. So, it transcends outside Russia. It’s a very beautiful story, so hopefully people are able to resonate with them regardless of their backgrounds.

A little towards the end of the film, during one of Kimi’s swings towards self-destruction, there was a line that seemed cruelly ironic considering the subject of the film: “Only by meditation on death can depression be cured.” In spite of that, there seems some truth to that statement. All ends are inevitable, and we leave the cinema knowing that things have changed, for better or for worse, but at least we are no longer in stasis, and there is more to come.

Image Courtesy of Barbican Chronic Youth Festival

I believe the director mentioned that this film was made out of love, and has to do with the impermanence of memory and wanting to keep that, alongside the intersection of politics and personal identity – how do you hope the audience would respond to How To Save a Dead Friend and what is it you want to them to feel from it?

George: It’s difficult to describe the spectrum of emotions with films like this, but there was a sense of reassurance that even in the darkest points, there is beauty, and even at your worst points in life, it’s reductive to say look on the bright side, but it doesn’t have to be happy to be beautiful. That’s what I took away, and if anyone gets anything similar, then I’d be very happy.

Do you have a list that you would like to show on screen if given the opportunity? Be it new films or a major film in the past, if you could curate any list.

George: Godzilla or something really old-school.

Retro fifties Godzilla?

George: One of the criteria of putting films here is if the big screen will do it good, and I think about films like that, how would audiences have felt with this booming sound in the cinema at that time, and I’ve only seen these old films on laptops.

So it’s the experience rather than the content of the film itself in this instance?

George: One feeds the other, but there’s something that cinema offers that your home doesn’t. After this time spent here, I come across a film and think ‘wow, that’d be really cool in cinema’ and so it’s an instinct they’ve drilled into us, to think about events that could happen. But yeah, Godzilla.

Sagal: I do have a specific answer for this one because it’s something I’ve thought about! It’s this documentary film called Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance by Alanis Obomsawin, an Indigenous filmmaker from the Mohawk lands in Quebec which is an area rife with turmoil and which they documented about how the government has impacted the lives of the Indigenous folks in Canada, specifically this region. As a Canadian, you’re not taught this in school, but it’s happening not that far from your home. It was filmed in 1993, but the effects of this conflict are still rife today; for me, it was one of the most powerful things I’ve seen.

Coming on to the final question, this is a quote taken from an interview with Marusya where she said “films can break the cycle of isolation and change people’s opinions and minds”, which I think is true considering what we’ve seen today: what are your thoughts and is there anything you’d like to add to that or how you feel?

Sagal: It makes sense: film is a way of storytelling and the filmmaker might set out with a vision and message and how it’s received can be entirely different, and it can be inspirational and life-changing when you see a film. That’s part of it with art, and film can be accessible in a way that allows you to seek out the stories you want to see and are of interest to you, or that challenge you a bit more. It’s a medium that is very easy to sit down and watch something and feel inspired by, or do the research on it after as well.

George: After the first time I watched this, for example, I felt like I woke up. These people’s lives and the world they had – it’s easy to slip into thinking that the world in some ways revolves around you, but film as a medium is basically saying, ‘look at me, I’m here. I exist, I have a life. It matters, it did this to me’ and that’s really beautiful. Each time we see a film, at least the films that really moved me, I feel woken up to these people’s lives. It reminds you how diverse the world is and how the people you walk past on the street also are the main characters of lives which are just as important as yours, their struggles, their joys, and I think that’s why cinema is one of the most connecting mediums there is.

The Barbican Chronic Youth Festival took place over April the 22nd to the 23rd, 2023

Edited by Barney Nuttall, Deputy Editor-in-Chief


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