Perspective is everything. Without it, we have no way to measure one experience against another. However, the limitation of perspective is that we, as individuals, tend to forget that what we perceive exists within a narrow scope defined by our experiences and beliefs. If we are brought up believing that one group is a higher class of citizen than another, then we will go about our lives with the notion that there are some who deserve respect and others who don’t. One need only take an unbiased look at European Imperialism (continued by Americans as European settlers) to see how they felt about conquering other countries (India, portions of the Middle East, creating the Transatlantic Slave Trade) to understand that perspective is the defining trait of conquerors and would-be tyrants. Having its international premiere at Tribeca 2022, satirical dark comedy We Might As Well Be Dead (Wir könnten genauso gut tot sein) from director Natalia Sinelnikova places the audience within the perspective of a woman caught between two worlds (head of security and motherhood) where the imbalance of one threatens to destroy the other. A high wire act of tension in daylight, We Might As Well Be Dead (WMAWBD) is a scruples dark comedy that speaks a truth too few are ready to acknowledge and explore regarding ingrained imperialism and social bias.
Phoebus House is regarded as one of the safest and most secure residential high-rises due to its carefully vetted and maintained community. All applicants are initially assessed by security officer Anna Wilczyńska (Ioana Iacob) before being considered by the housing authority committee. Permission to live at Phoebus only comes if the committee deems the applicant a worthy addition to the community, offering something particularly unique to the collective, as well as committing to participate in maintaining a high social, interpersonal, and moral way of life. If anyone is considered in breach of their rules, they can face punishment up to expulsion from the property. This wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the presumed lawlessness that occurs outside of the barbed-wire fence of the idyllic property line. Things are seemingly safe and calm at Phoebus until a resident becomes belligerent upon the loss of his dog, unwittingly sowing seeds of doubt and mistrust that ramp up to create an environment of fear in the presumed peaceful establishment. It’s up to Anna to make everyone calm and comfortable, but she has a secret of her own that complicates matters in absurd ways.
For the bulk of WMAWBD, Anna is our only focal point. Where she goes, we go, with the exception of two scenes. For the sake of keeping things spoiler-free, let’s discuss the opening of the film as tone setting and introduction to the story and Anna. At no point do Sinelnikova and co-writer Viktor Gallandi establish the period or location of the film, but the creative duo make plain a certain encroaching danger from the jump by first following two parents and a child (each well-dressed) moving swiftly through the woods carrying nothing more than a single ax in each set of adult hands. We don’t know from where they came or, initially, where they are going until they make it to the security gates for the high-rise. From there, we cut to Anna wanding each of the three, asking them initial questions about their character and prior living experiences before taking them on a tour of their potential living quarters. This swiftly sets up the circumstances of the story and what kind of person Anna is with incredible ease, not wasting a single moment so as to jump straight into the themes of the film. Through their interaction, the audience comes to understand the severity of living on the property, as well as Anna’s difficult role as grounds security and initial vetting officer. She is a conduit and, at times, a barrier between potential housemates and the authority committee, one that’s of protection, but also a scapegoat should someone have a problem with how things are run. In this brief sequence, the camera is still, initially moving between wide establishing shots and mid-range as Anna wands them before shifting to a wide shot as she guides them through a tour of the apartment. One can’t help get the feeling of being watched as the camera is often up in a corner during this sequence when not up close. In this combination of performance and camerawork, Sinelnikova establishes an immediate distrust of Phoebus House while creating sympathy for and from Anna. Throughout the film, Sinelnikova uses a similar angle approach when following Anna, instilling a sense that wherever she goes, even at night, she’s constantly under surveillance. Considering the film runs 93 minutes, there’s an impressive economical approach to direction, cinematography, and production design so that everything we see contains some kind of weight, whether enhancing dread or unrest.
For a moment, let’s jump to that notion of constant surveillance and how it funnels through the whole film. Phoebus House is touted by its membership as a safe haven, a protected oasis from whatever’s beyond the walls. Anna is its only security force until doubt and fear infiltrate the community, making some feel they need to patrol the property themselves. Initially, the fear comes from a sense of a wrong not being taken seriously (loss of a pet), which spreads into a concern that someone from outside got in. Because the camera is almost always with Anna, we have all the evidence that she has, all the knowledge that she has. We can see the authenticity and sincerity she brings to her job, only using her authority when necessary to protect the residents. We do not know what goes on with the other residents, but it’s clear from what we do see that while Anna sees herself as a member the community, the residents do not, taking issue with her appropriate use of the rules and turning a small concern into a bid for power. Why does this matter? The script by Sinelnikova and Gallandi seems to want the audience to view the Phoebus House and its operations as a smaller exploration of society at large and the classes which are consciously and subconsciously created. This isn’t just reason versus emotion, but a battle between those who have and those who provide. The people who have always presume they are better than those who provide — we need only look to the various “Karens” that have popped up in recent years in the U.S. for a real-world corollary. It’s the people who proclaim “I pay your salary” as though that’s enough of a reason to demean another. It’s the people who presume that being from a different country, speaking a different language, or holding a different religious belief means you are “the other” and cannot be trusted. If you come away from WMAWBD thinking it’s a film examining fascism, you’re so close, but not quite there. Yes, there is a small band of residents who weaponized the social contract of living in order to create safety and yes this feels a lot like fascism, but it’s more like society at large whenever someone wants to make themselves feel secure: blame someone else. We, the audience, don’t know what happened to the dog nor its relationship to its owner; all we know is what Anna hears about it from its distraught owner. Could the owner have harmed the dog and is afraid to be found out, therefore face being removed? Could this entire situation be the cause of someone desperately terrified about leaving Phoebus? We don’t know. We can only speculate, but this doesn’t matter to Sinelnikova and Gallandi because the effect is what’s important within the film, not the why.
Sinelnikova and Gallandi’s script smartly teases out all of its themes and ideas without dumbing down anything in order for the audience to get things. This means that scenes are captured and presented to the audience as though we know everything, requiring the audience to go along, soaking up each microaggression, each bit of silence, each physical performance to fill in what we don’t know until something is explicitly stated. This is absolutely commendable because a lesser script would feel the need to either include a pre-script intro or utilize narration to set the stage before we even meet the couple on the run. By forcing the audience to go in blind, we learn what we learn about Phoebus as the new applicants do before transitioning to Anna; then, after, we get a look inside the beast itself through someone who is vulnerable to the turning tide of social mores and community living. Nothing within WMAWBD implies a debut feature, yet this is for Sinelnikova and it’s a masterclass in world-building and tension in broad daylight.
In the Cast & Credits portion of the film’s Tribeca webpage, Sinelnikova’s brief biography notes that she emigrated from Saint Petersburg, Russia, to Germany in 1996 as a Jewish quota refugee. Being Jewish myself, I felt compelled to see We Might As Well Be Dead and found a multitude of aspects which connected with me. The fear of “othering” that can come from anyone who feels threatened, code-switching from one community to another, and even the terror of uncertainty that comes from differences in cultural understanding. Much of the interpersonal tension within Anna comes from the way WMAWBD presents the weaponization of fear because of Anna’s background, something which the film hints at but doesn’t outright say until well into the film. Those who have not experienced, as a culture, that kind of othering are likely not to feel the full weight of Sinelnikova’s film and that’s a grace all should experience. Until then, a film like this one offers an opportunity to understand the kind of perspective often out of a person’s reach when they fail to acknowledge their own bias. For me, the beautiful production design and cinematography were enough to know that the dangers within are as mighty as the perceived ones outside. If one has to decide to face one or the other, it’s a choiceless choice that ends in a wash with living a trial no matter what. At that point, you may as well be dead.
Screening during the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.
For more information, head to the official We Might As Well Be Dead Tribeca film page.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.