For many queer youth, coming to terms with their sexuality can be a difficult, horrifying experience. For Russian kids – where the state has outlawed any promotion of LGBT themes towards children – it can be even more complicated and traumatic. Russian filmmaker Dima Barch taps into this nightmarish feeling with provocative horror short Dead End, which expertly uses the genre to explore the deleterious, shape-shifting effects of toxic masculinity and how it can turn a young man inside out. Hopping between different eras in the man’s life, following the protagonist escaping from an abusive ex, as well as cleverly utilising its locations to heighten the drama, Dead End questions if you can ever move on from a difficult past and into a new future. We had the chance to talk to Barch, who has left Russia, ahead of Dead End’s premiere on DN today about turning personal trauma into art, working with legendary actor Yan Tsapnik in a pivotal scene and shooting the film in just four days.

There seems to be a lot of emotions tied up in the creation of the film. Did it feel personal to you to make a film about being gay in Russia today? Do you feel that it is getting worse as a result of the past year?

Dead End is a project of high sentimental value for me. It stems from my trauma after an abusive relationship. I was literally afraid of being followed and bitten by my ex. But, yes, mostly, I tried to achieve a wider statement about being gay in Russia: from the basic fear of coming out to everyday homophobic experiences which make you not only underrepresented and invisible but also a person without an identity. I’ve never felt freedom in my homeland.

After declaring war, the Russian government started to destroy ‘inner enemies’ as well. The discriminative so-called “gay propaganda” law was expanded – any LGBTQI content is banned now. But, unfortunately, I can’t say anything about the feeling inside the country because I had to flee it a year ago, right after the situation changed completely.

I tried to achieve a wider statement about being gay in Russia: from the basic fear of coming out to everyday homophobic experiences.

With many different types of lighting set ups and locations, was it a difficult shoot overall? How many days did you have for shooting and was it hard to get it all done in time?

Dead End is a short film, and it’s an auteur horror which could be an advantage in the world but is definitely quite the opposite in Russia. I must give thanks to Vladislav Severtsev, my producer, who trusted me with this script. There were four days and a huge enthusiasm to shoot it. It was terrific and absolutely intense! I barely remembered the first shooting night. It was pouring down, we were setting one of the most complicated scenes (with the car), and I was directing it with my headphones because walkie-talkies were still flying in.

As you said, Dead End is very much about personal struggle. How did you think about dramatising that through the horror genre itself?

I’m a fan of Jordan Peele’s way of storytelling. I mean you’re saying something socially important but with genre, with craft. For me, direction is mostly about craft: strict blocking, choosing camera angles, looking for the best way of world-building, etc. And horror, more than anything, can give you the exact instruments for that. You can tell your personal stories using a real rollercoaster.

Just imagine: you’d like to reach something, but the whole world is against you.

You have a lot of long takes in the film. What’s it like in terms of ensuring actors are committed to executing the scene and making sure you keep the intensity that a horror film needs?

The first decision about the form of Dead End was staying in the long takes field. The whole film Nick, the main character, is trying to escape from Godfrey. But, despite his running, he can’t. So we needed to make him slow, to stop him. Just imagine: you’d like to reach something, but the whole world is against you. In terms of acting, yes, it could be more complicated because the actors should be inside longer. But the guys did it. I’m so glad Sviatoslav Rogozhan, who played Nick, got a Best Lead Performance nomination at Vancouver Horror Show.

I love how this film uses the horror genre to really explore different ideas and places, all the while tying us back to that very first scene. Do you feel a lot of freedom to explore in that respect?

As a director, I wanted to build a world the audience could embrace. One of my favourite movies is It Follows by David Robert Mitchell. Despite the horror, his space is charming. You can immerse into this film but permanently think of Jey, the lead character’s, fears as well. It’s an absolute advantage of the genre.

Legendary Russian actor Yan Tsapnik plays the father in the film. What was it like having him on board? What did he add to the set?

Yan is ICONIC! Having him on board was like a dream-come-true moment. We knew each other and, to be honest, could name each other as friends, but I wasn’t sure that it could happen. Fortunately, it did and when he came to the set, all the crew felt something in the air. Yan can switch himself and transform from a real person to your character in a second. He made the dad more grounded, I guess. In the script, Yan’s character was more genre, more ambiguous, but less dramatic. Yan’s probably the best dramatic actor from Russia.

Dead End’s feel is really aided by the synth soundtrack. I’d love to know more about how you collaborated with the composer.

As I said, It Follows was very influential for me – an absolute blast, especially in terms of its score. Disasterpeace made something extraordinary. So in Dead End and my future projects, I’d love to work with only a crazy synth soundtrack. When I came to Galaktionov, who had a huge experience in the theatre field with something I needed but without film scores, we decided to look at Disasterpeace and Cristobal Tapia de Veer as those who were mostly about synth stuff, not scores. Then it was like an awesome collaborative process. He was trying to create something raw and I led him through the genre film ways.

The message isn’t swamped in the horror genre but supported by it.

What was the reception like for Dead End on the festival circuit.

Our festival run is amazing. I still cannot believe it happened: from Beyond Fest and Morbido Fest to Panic Fest and Salem Horror Fest. The main world genre events were welcoming my very first film. Also, in the case of London Short Film, I’m honoured twice because it’s a general, non-genre festival. Moreover, they decided to include Dead End in the international program despite there being genre festivals. So this conversation about abuse, and the horror of masculinity, is clear for programmers – and also for the audience. The message isn’t swamped in the horror genre but supported by it. I attended the LSFF screening in person. And it was awesome to hear from one of the viewers: “Thank you for your fucking great movie!” It’s more than everything for the director.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on my second short. This story’s about a really tough choice, with a lot of blood, and will be in English. I’m also working on my feature horror debut called Absence. Absence got a selection from European Genre Forum and BIF Market. We are trying to launch it this year. I hope so, at least.

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