Pussy Riot documentary directors talk about the tribulations (and trial) of the art collective-cum-punk band

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Last year, Pussy Riot members Nadia Tolokonnikova, Masha Alyokhina, and Katia Samutsevich made expletive-heavy headlines when they were arrested and then imprisoned after the punk band-cum-art collective performed the song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Out” in a Moscow cathedral. The trio’s story is detailed in a new documentary, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, which is screening on HBO, June 10, and seeks to both contextualize the group and humanize the three arrested members, two of whom are still serving out their sentences in penal colonies.

“In the West, the story was very much presented as ‘Punk band gets in jail for singing as song against Putin,’ which is kind of nonsense” says Mike Lerner, who codirected the film with Maxim Pozdorovkin. “Our ambition was to demonstrate that they are serious political thinkers and not just stupid student-types with a grudge.” Interviewees in the film include relations of the trio as well as a member of the Orthodox church who translates the Russian word for the first half of the collective’s name as “deranged vagina.” “The Russian word for that is incredibly, incredibly vulgar,” says Pozdorovkin. “Even people who swear a lot don’t use it.”

Below, Lerner and Pozdorovkin talk more about their movie.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the genesis of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer?
Mike Lerner: I noticed their existence with the Red Square action (when Pussy Riot performed the song “Putin Has P—ed Himself” on January 20, 2012) and there were lots of amazing photographs of them and I thought, “Who the hell are these people?” And then, once they had been arrested, I thought, “Well, this has definitely got the makings of a very epic and gripping story.” So I went out shortly after their arrest to Moscow.
Maxim Pozdorovkin: “Epic” and “gripping” turned out to be understatements.
ML: So we started following the pretrial hearings and got to know their legal team and supporters and started to meet their families. Russia, and Moscow in particular, in that period was very dynamic, very charged. There was this series of very big rallies and opposition protests. It was a heady time.
MP: As the story it grew, it was interesting because the truth began to be lost. There were so many people who saw Pussy Riot as convenient for their political agendas, both in Russia and abroad. We realized that we could make a humanistic experience about the three women and focus on them and what they go through and how they handle this trial and that they essentially turn it into a piece of performance art.

Before seeing the documentary I assumed Pussy Riot was “just” a punk band. Could you talk about their background?
MP: Yes. They’re a feminist art collective that takes on the guise of a band and stages guerrilla performances. They’ll show up at a place, they’ll film themselves jumping around, and then post that video on the Internet, and that becomes their piece of media art. They’re coming out of a long line of performance art in Russia but also they’re inspired by “actionism,” which is a Viennese movement that combines direct political action and performance art. I think that’s one of the things that gets lost. When people assume they’re a band you’re saying that their song is the art work. But the effectiveness and the artistic merit of the piece is to be gauged on the response it provoked.

The movie is clearly on the side of Pussy Riot but it does remind the viewer why the orthodox church in Russia would be so upset about this, after decades of being trampled upon by the Communist regime.
ML: But orthodox culture is also very much aligned with this new nationalism as well. It’s one of the great symbols of Russia and in a way this nationalism and this religiosity and this extremism is all part of a recent, Putin-inspired wave of extreme nationalism. It’s definitely a symbol of what the communists tried to eradicate and suppress and in a way is one of the symbol of free Russia. But recently it has a much darker and more extreme and anti-women and anti-gay and really anti-freedom of expression appearance that you see in the film.

I always assumed the Spice Girls’ “Girl Power” concept was a lot of phony-baloney marketing nonsense. But there is a moment in the movie where we learn how one of the Pussy Riot members was inspired by them.
MP: The Spice Girls didn’t have that much to do with Pussy Riot, per se. But your point is well made that these factors do get percolated through Russia and filtered and refracted in these ways. I think for us as filmmakers we wanted to be honest about how radical they are and that a lot of people will feel uncomfortable because, if you’re going to be honest, vulgarity is part of their tactic, just like punk-rock was a tactic they use to provoke debate. I think that’s one of these aspects that has been lost in the presentation of the band.

One of the things that struck me in the documentary was the that their trial seemed an absolute shambles—I don’t simply mean in the sense that it was unjust but that it was shambolic. In the film you raise the specter of the show trials which occurred under Stalin but, to be honest, the authorities didn’t seem interested in putting on much of a show.
MP: It’s a very good point that you make. Because it’s clearly not a show trial in the classical sense. But the resonance with it is this notion, which runs very deep in Russian culture, of public punishment. It’s a public spanking. And that’s really the connection. [There is] this idea that they have to prostrate themselves, they have to demean themselves, and then they’ll get a lenient sentence. And they refuse to do that.

No kidding. I was amazed by their “F— you” attitude in court. I would have been crying like a baby.
ML: Join the club.

What would you say is the point of the film beyond it being a fascinating story? Do you have hopes the film may help get the two still imprisoned Pussy Riot members out early?
ML: For me, it’s to show the human side to their iconic achievement. I’m very skeptical to the degree to which any Western pressure or journalism can actually alleviate their position. In some ways it could even make it worse. They’re often accused of being Western agents. The BBC were accused at one stage of being behind the whole cathedral demo. And this idea that Madonna somehow knocked months off their sentence — I think the opposite could easily be true. Obviously we don’t want to damage their fate, but at the same time we’re under no illusion that we’re somehow helping them particularly.
MP: In the long run, I think seeing them as these kind of martyrs does a disservice to them and to their ideas and to their movement. I think it is bigger than that. They are not naïve little lambs. They’re smart and they’re eloquent and they have real convictions. I mean, they’re real revolutionaries, in a sense. I know this is anecdotal, but showing the film to even my mother  and father, who were against Pussy Riot beforehand, they actually really did come around. It’s not that they necessarily support them but they see them in a very very different light than they did after just seeing all the media coverage.

I’m not sure the members of Pussy Riot would appreciate the comparison but, while watching the movie, I kept on thinking about Larry Flynt and his own free speech battles.
ML: Well, you’ve got an orgy. (The documentary includes sexually explicit footage of Nadia Tolokonnikova taking part in a conceptual art piece called The Biology Museum.) I think Larry Flynt would have approved of that! No, I think they would welcome that comparison.
MP: It goes to this point that I made earlier about vulgarity. They want to be provocative and they use the kind of things that others would find in bad taste to get to that point. Because that’s a tactic to provoke debate and dialog in society. It’s just that their motives are much better than Larry Flynt’s.

You referenced the sequence of footage you include from the Biology Museum. Did you debate whether to include that?
ML: Not for long.
ML: We knew that we had to include it. I mean, it’s a famous thing that people know surrounding them — and people who are detractors of Pussy Riot, this is the main thing people have trouble with. Even Nadia’s mother basically disowned her after that. So we knew that it had to be in the film because it is part of the story, part of the critique that people make against them. Also the fact that it was brought up in the trial by the prosecution was very important because it elevates the stakes of a public spanking. It goes outside this particular action. They took this accumulative punishment for their actions in the past.

Katia was released on appeal last October. Has she seen the film?
MP: After she was released, we met with her and started talking with her and became friends — we chat with her on Skype almost every day. She’s seen many many cuts of the film and she’s been very supportive.

What’s next for you?
MP: We’re planning a film on the Bolshoi Theatre. That’s our next big Russian story.

You can see a trailer for Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer below.

Read more:
Pussy Riot doc director says band member on hunger strike has not been hospitalized
Pussy Riot loses appeal
Released Pussy Riot member offers no regrets

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