by Nuha Hassan
Natalia Sinelnikova’s directorial debut We Might As Well Be Dead is a social satire film, which shows a dystopian world where the community selects people to live in a well-guarded high-rise apartment. Its vagueness begins with what the outside world looks like since the movie starts with parents and a child running through the forest, the father wielding an axe, towards the iron gate entrance which holds the highly selective community. The people inside the building live in peace, without any trouble from the outside world, and it’s interesting that they call themselves as anything but migrants. There’s tension inside the isolated community, and when a new problem surfaces, the elite tries to protect themselves using any kind of method necessary.
Anna (Ioana Iacob) holds the hybrid position of security guard and concierge, and she is responsible for solving issues, announcing weather reports, and asking questions to new visitors about their health and overall contributions to a neighbourhood. She shows an apartment to a new family that will be assigned to them if only they get accepted, which would be discussed with the whole community. There are some actions that will disqualify the family such as bribing and begging Anna to accept them, which she reports honestly and truthfully to the residents on her impressions of the applicants.
Meanwhile, her daughter Iris (Pola Geiger) locks herself in their bathroom because she believes she has an evil eye and caused one of the neighbour’s dogs to disappear. Anna is under a lot of pressure from the dog owner and the other residents to find out what happened and to prove to her daughter that she is not responsible for the dog’s disappearance, so she goes out to find it. But what begins as a rescue mission, turns into chaos within the community and soon, paranoia and mistrust infiltrate the walls of the high-rise apartment.
We Might As Well Be Dead evokes the tension of fear escalating to the point where isolation and elitism are humanity’s answer to a dystopian world. It’s interesting how far paranoia can fester in a close community. When Anna is not able to handle the situation, the neighbours take the matter into their own hands and create a patrol. Her words don’t reach them anymore and they make the decisions on whether new residents can live in the community or not. Also, because she is a Polish Jew, bigotry and xenophobia seep into the community and viewers learn of the residents’ hesitancy to hire her because of her identity.
Most of the inspiration for this community comes from Sinelnikova’s own experience of living in a high-rise housing estate in St. Petersburg. As a Russian Jew, her family moved to Germany in 1996, she felt misplaced. She had to conform to new rules and never felt like she belonged there. Sinelnikova uses this as a social allegory for a patriachal society with the intention of creating a community where everyone has a purpose and a sense of belonging. In the case of Anna, when the residents doubt her true commitment to the community, they begin to exclude her because she’s an outsider too. Sinelnikova’s experiences are utilised and mirrored into this world’s reality, and it’s this satirical element that keeps the movie interesting, however, some of it gets distracted due to issues with the narrative.
While every resident has a unique job that keeps them busy inside the high-rise building, viewers aren’t aware of what danger actually lurks outside of the community. At the beginning of the film, the family of three carries an axe and runs through the forest. Once they meet Anna, the father pleads to let them stay in the community where they would be safe. The film neither explains why the community lives in this building nor explores what is out there. Since this narrative is unexplored in the movie, the ending is weak because viewers don't understand why it makes everything so daunting and dangerous. We Might As Well Be Dead simmers with anger and paranoia that bubbles over, just like its title.
The film conveys the theme of insanity of tribalism and it uses the characters to express it. Their ability to blindly follow the paranoia and lead to antagonistic decisions makes the results absurd and bleak. Sinelnikova explores the many existential and xenophobic crises of today’s issues through a chauvinist society that deems itself to be noble and with good intent. However, We Might As Well Be Dead lacks the narrative crescendo to make the ending more interesting and explore what is outside of the high-rise community that makes their existence exclusive to certain people.