Rising Filmmaker Natalia Sinelnikova on Embracing Fear and Chaos in Her Berlinale, Tribeca Debut ‘We Might as Well Be Dead’

Natalia Sinelnikova, a rising writer-director who emigrated from St. Petersburg to Germany as a child, is exploring the disrupting force of fear through her critically acclaimed feature debut “We Might as Well Be Dead.”

The film, which world premiered at the Berlinale and is having its North American premiere at Tribeca, is both a dystopian and tragicomic satire taking place in a high-rise, secluded building which harbors a carefully-curated community in a world that has fallen apart. The movie follows Anna, who works as a security officer for the building and lives there with her daughter. When a dog disappears, the picture-perfect world of the community derails and turns into chaos, leading to irrational fears, mistrust and cruelty. The movie is represented in international market by Fortissimo Films.

Sinelnikova spoke to Variety about what drove her to write “We Might as Well Be Dead” and the underlying themes of this timely allegory.

How did you come up with this concept of a closed-off, socially distanced community? It seems so timely — did you write the script during the lockdown?

I know! I actually wrote the script before the pandemic, and what’s mad is that I had written some scenes with people wearing masks and being afraid of contagions. But then COVID happened and I erased these scenes because I didn’t want the film to be about the pandemic. But we shot it during the second lockdown in Germany. We didn’t know if we could finish it. We were afraid that if we had to shut down the shoot because of a case, we wouldn’t have the budget to restart. I even considered turning it into a short if something happened. Making a film about fear in these conditions was kind of an ironic coincidence.

Still, the film captures the strangeness of our times.

Yes, we feel this right-wing push no matter where we live, this feeling of a catastrophe looming, and it influences us and our world. We are all worried about the political situation in our respective countries. There has been many incidents in Germany, in the U.S. and these thoughts made them way into the film.

The film seems like an allegory. How does it relate to your personal journey emigrating to Germany at a young age?

Every film is personal and I wouldn’t say it’s autobiographical; but it was inspired by some childhood memories. I wanted to make a film about trying to adjust to a society which doesn’t accept you. How do you keep your cultural identity while trying to adjust? I was 7 when emigrated to Germany with my family as part of the Russian Jewish quota refugees in 1996. But no matter how hard I tried to adapt to the new rules and rituals to become German, I always felt like a foreigner. I remember looking at German families living in beautiful homes, and wanting to belong and feel accepted.

Why is fear so central to the plot of “We Might as Well Be Dead”?

Because fear reveals primal instincts. The film questions, what does it take for a society to radicalize itself? It’s often the smallest things that can trigger chaos. Fear is not the answer to brutality in society but we are so easily afraid. All these questions are really interesting.

The movie made me think of “Get Out.” There is a real genre element in the film.

Yes, the thriller genre was very important. I’m fascinated by genre and it was a great tool to show how fear is built. I played with camera angles and the music to shift reality and perspectives. The music played a big part. We had a music supervisor, a composer. We had the idea of having a choir in the soundtrack which added another layer of suspense.

The actors form a great ensemble, especially Ioana Iacob who plays Anna.

It was a long process for the casting director. The actors were very dedicated and they did it because they liked the script very much because it was a low budget. Every actor shaped the role, we rehearsed with them to help them deliver the absurd, deadpan dialogue in truthful way. Not one character in the film is a caricature, and that was important. I think we found the right balance between absurdity, dark humor and tragedy.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on my next feature, and it’s going to be even more genre, much darker, more absurd, radical and fun. I’m also working on a coming-of-age anthology series of six episodes about different immigrant perspectives in Berlin. I’ll be directing the episode about being Jewish in Berlin in your 20s. It’s been commissioned by a public broadcaster. The film and TV industry in Germany is very aware of the issue of diversity and they’re pushing projects with new perspectives, and that’s how this series came about. People are trying to change something and eradicate racism, antisemitism and xenophobia. There is a lot of cleaning up to do in Germany.

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