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Director, podcaster and Succession cast member Dasha Nekrasova’s debut film is a genre mash-up that reflects the hallucinatory age of conspiracy theories. By Shaad D’Souza.

Gonzo director and actor Dasha Nekrasova

Dasha Nekrasova.
Credit: Don Stahl

In the economy of internet celebrity, where it seems that everyone is either an untouchable hero or callous villain, where might you place Dasha Nekrasova? In a few short years the podcaster, filmmaker and actress has become a cult figure with as many fans as detractors. The reaction to her directorial debut – the gonzo horror film The Scary of Sixty-First – is typically polarised: The Hollywood Reporter dismisses the film as “a shallow provocation”, while a rave in Variety describes it as “brash, gutsy, morbidly funny”. A few weeks after the film won Berlinale’s Best First Feature award, a scene from the film was shared online and subjected to unrelenting mockery. Nekrasova responded on Twitter with typically irreverent, antagonistic humour: “Noticed some ppl on here criticizing my feature length film?? Why don’t u make one then u artless dumbass.”

Nekrasova, 30, has taken to heart the publicist’s mantra: weigh your press packet, don’t read it. When we speak in mid-July she’s just off a flight from New York, where she lives, to Los Angeles. Less than a fortnight earlier she was in Italy filming a role on the third season of HBO’s Emmy-sweeping Succession. She’s also continued to record Red Scare, the media commentary podcast she hosts with writer and mildly controversial Twitter personality Anna Khachiyan, and to publicise The Scary of Sixty-First, which is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival and sporadically throughout the United States during the coming months.

Via Zoom she comes across very much as she does on the podcast – warm, gracious, earnest, and keen for erudite discussion on the elevated and the profane. It seems that she’s a little too busy to take flippant critiques of her film seriously. “People are watching it not in good faith, but there’s nothing I can really do,” she sighs, before adding, with a smile: “And, you know, haters are fans too.”

Born in Belarus to a rhythmic gymnast mother and an acrobat father, Nekrasova moved to the United States in 1994 at the age of three. Her family settled in Las Vegas, where her parents could find consistent work, and Nekrasova grew up amid suburban sprawl, attending high school at a performing arts academy in downtown Vegas. “In the ’90s, especially, [Vegas wasn’t] a very wholesome or stimulating place,” she says. She’s unsure what qualities the city may have instilled in her – “It probably has made me a little more jaded, maybe a little more postmodern” – but recalls how, while in Rome recently, she couldn’t help but think of her home town’s re-creations of Italian landmarks. “When I went to Italy, I felt kind of jaded, and I think it’s because I went to Caesar’s Palace as a kid. Going to Rome as an adult, even though you’re seeing the real stuff, doesn’t really impress as much, because functionally it doesn’t really make a difference whether it’s the real thing or a simulation of it.”

After high school, Nekrasova moved to the Bay Area to attend a women’s liberal arts college where she majored in philosophy. Her degree, she says, made her “basically unemployable”; she moved to Los Angeles and studied acting, which ended up aligning with her philosophical interests. “It feels pretentious to say, but acting deals with reality and states of being – what it means to be alive or inhabit a character.”

In 2018, Nekrasova and her friend Eugene Kotlyarenko wrote and starred in Wobble Palace, a sweet micro-budget break-up comedy directed by Kotlyarenko. While in Texas to promote the film, Nekrasova – dressed in a Sailor Moon-style schoolgirl outfit – was ambushed by a reporter from Alex Jones’s InfoWars. In response to the reporter’s increasingly inane questions, Nekrasova began to deliver pithy, sarcastic one-liners, culminating in a withering: “You people have worms in your brains, honestly.” The clip went viral; Nekrasova was dubbed “Sailor Socialism” and gained tens of thousands of followers overnight. Every Halloween, Nekrasova reposts Instagram stories of fans, many of them young gay men, in Sailor Socialism costumes.

Shortly after her brush with viral notoriety, Nekrasova moved to New York and began making Red Scare with Khachiyan. She and Khachiyan had met online, bonding over their shared experiences as Russian immigrants. Red Scare dissects culture and politics with particular attention to corporate feminism, identity politics and pop socialism. It has been controversial, in large part because of Nekrasova and Khachiyan’s willingness to use certain slurs and criticise movements such as #MeToo. The tone of each episode can shift wildly; in recent episodes, Nekrasova and Khachiyan have discussed everything from whether tinned fish is a “hot girl food” to the allegations of paedophilia against long-dead philosopher Michel Foucault, over the sounds of wine glasses being filled, cigarettes being lit, and, in one episode, intermittent bong hits.

The approach has proved lucrative. The podcast currently takes in just shy of $60,000 a month on content subscription platform Patreon, and Nekrasova and Khachiyan have been profiled in mainstream publications such as New York Magazine and London’s The Times. Guests have included philosopher Slavoj Žižek, documentarian Adam Curtis, actress Hari Nef, DJ Juliana Huxtable, and, in one of its most controversial episodes, former White House strategist Steve Bannon.

When I started listening to the show about two years ago, Nekrasova and Khachiyan’s critique of identity politics elucidated how my own understandings of identity and representation were rooted in capitalism, ignorant of class politics. I had been feeling increasingly alienated from contemporary discourse; Red Scare gave me the language to articulate those feelings.

Nef has said something similar about Red Scare: “This podcast played a role in me having language to articulate what was stupid about Hollywood, what was stupid about the media, what was making me feel produced as [a trans woman.]” Critics of the podcast often suggest Nekrasova and Khachiyan’s politics are incoherent; it is precisely this incoherence, mirrored in so many young people who feel unrepresented by electoral politics and left behind by mainstream liberal culture, that seems to connect. The show’s belief system might be neatly summarised with one of Nekrasova’s Sailor Socialism lines: “I just want free healthcare, honey.”

Central to Nekrasova’s world view is the disgust she feels towards society’s ultra-wealthy elites: people such as the Clintons, Bill Gates and, notably, billionaire paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. The Scary of Sixty-First is an outgrowth of this contempt. Centring on two roommates who find they’ve unwittingly moved into one of Epstein’s Upper East Side orgy houses, the film irreverently mixes low-budget Giallo horror, autofictive mumblecore and YouTube political mash-up, combining camp occult horror and millennial black comedy with real footage of Epstein’s private island, media clippings and scenes shot outside his former townhouse. Filmed months after Epstein’s death, it’s a rare piece of fiction that exists simultaneously with the current event it addresses. In its intertwining of nonfiction and the supernatural, the film feels as simultaneously real and fake as the many competing narratives of Epstein’s life and death that have proliferated in the news.

“Paedophilia, to me, feels like a very logical conclusion to excesses and abuses of capital,” Nekrasova says. To her, the true horror of the Epstein case wasn’t the sex crime – it was the fear that the network of trafficking and sex crime could be covering up far larger injustices. “I think the reason a lot of incredibly wealthy people are paedophiles is because amassing incredible wealth and power does make you numb and depends on exploitation to such an extent that the logical conclusion of it is, like, the systematic abuse of children, basically.”

In the summer of 2019, about the time of Epstein’s death in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center and subsequent posthumous hearings, Nekrasova began to take an active, quasi-investigatory interest in the case. She attended a hearing with a friend, one of the anonymous Jane Does who came forward as a victim, and hosted meet-ups in Union Square where she and other Epstein truthers would discuss the suspicious circumstances around his death. The proliferation of the “Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself” meme, which became surprisingly mainstream, emboldened her belief that something could come to light. “The meme was about acknowledging, collectively, that there is a ruling class and their interests do run counter to ours, and depend on our exploitation,” she says. “It is a conspiracy – but it’s a conspiracy between those in power to conspire against those without it.”

Nekrasova’s investigation proved unexpectedly fruitful. In September 2019, she began writing The Scary of Sixty-First with her friend Madeline Quinn, who co-stars in the film with Nekrasova, on the rooftop sundeck of the 61st Street branch of the luxury gym Equinox. The writing of the film, she says, felt driven by something semi-divine. “I am a practising Catholic, so I believe in the grace of God and fate, in a way. Making Scary does feel like a little bit of a miracle,” she says.

The Scary of Sixty-First was shot in January 2020, days after the narrative takes place in December 2019. If the production had been pushed by even a few weeks, it would have likely been shut down by the pandemic.

“I was definitely in a very manic state and [Quinn] and I were on a lot of amphetamines while we were scripting and stuff, so that probably contributed to my religious fervour that I was experiencing at the time,” she says. In the film, Nekrasova plays a nameless woman obsessed with uncovering the truth about Epstein who tries to persuade Quinn’s character, Noelle, that her new apartment is one of his former residences. In the film’s most surreal, ecstatic scenes, Nekrasova and Quinn’s characters binge on the prescription amphetamine Vyvanse and discuss theories of Epstein’s hanging, culminating in a scene where Nekrasova’s character re-creates the scenario herself. A stunt co-ordinator was present during filming but Nekrasova still burst blood vessels around her eyes.

“My character in the film, her obsession with the Epstein saga was very true to my experience of it,” Nekrasova says. “It almost felt like if you read [Epstein’s] black book enough times, you would – again, also amphetamines – somehow get to the bottom of something. It was a fantasy of control, and I think I just felt so, so out of control.”

Nekrasova uses genre conventions to convey how viscerally awful that period in history felt to her. “All these documentaries came out on [streaming services] that were produced by people who are in cahoots with the Clintons, and that just cherrypick these salacious details, focusing on the paedophilic, salacious aspect of [Epstein’s crimes], as opposed to the systematic abuse of power,” she says. “I didn’t want the emotional truth of the Epstein stuff, for me, to be whitewashed or to be forgotten.”

Nekrasova has made her peace with the Epstein saga, her role as writer-director-actor providing a kind of gruelling catharsis. “I actually resent, a little bit, how long it’s taken for the film to come out,” she says. “I don’t want to talk about Jeffrey Epstein for the rest of my life.”

Her role in Succession provides some tonal respite, zeroing in on the absurdist familial conflict of a family that runs a Murdoch-style media empire. In the new season, airing later this year, Nekrasova plays the assistant to a crisis publicist. She describes the role as her “first big job” and speaks with admiration about her time filming. “On Succession, the way it’s shot, with multicamera set-ups, it’s very immersive – almost theatrical – and it’s a really fun world to play in and all the actors are so, so talented; it’s very satisfying,” she says.

Nekrasova is looking towards directing her second feature. She is grateful, she says, that she has the podcast as a main source of income, given how fast the indie film industry is shrinking: “I’m very lucky that I don’t have to make creative compromises or do a job that I wouldn’t otherwise do, for the money.” Whatever her next film is, it likely won’t possess The Scary of Sixty-First’s almost reckless charge. “I’ve become a lot healthier over the course of quarantine, and I’m trying to prioritise balance in my life,” she says, before breaking into a laugh. “There’s nothing I’m spiralling about currently.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 7, 2021 as "Scare tactics".

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Shaad D’Souza is The Saturday Paper’s music critic.