sundance

Pussy Riot’s Ongoing Struggle

The filmmakers behind Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, which just got bought by HBO, discuss the complexities of their film and the worldwide movement it captures. And with two performers still in jail, the film is increasingly urgent.

Pussy Riot members rehearse for their Cathedral performance Roast Beef Productions

In one of the first scenes of the documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, which premiered at Sundance on Friday night, a policeman is interrogating Katia, one of the three Pussy Riot members arrested for performing on the altar of Russia’s Cathedral. “Do you dream of marrying and having a child?” the policeman asks. It seems to only confirm his darkest suspicions that she responds that no, she does not dream of marriage and children. But it’s precisely that outlook that the anonymous feminist punk collective Pussy Riot was founded to combat. And if this documentary — which was bought by HBO Documentary Films on Sunday — makes nothing else clear, it’s that the prevailing attitudes about women’s rights and freedom of speech in Russia are deeply, troublingly conservative, and that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will not brook any resistance to his regime, even if it comes in the form of women in neon balaclavas and tights performing two-minute punk songs in public places.

The film chronicles the February 2012 arrest, summer trial, and October appeal of the three women, Nadia, Katia, and Masha. (A fourth woman who also performed on the altar has never been publicly identified.) Directors and friends Maxim Pozdorovkin and Mike Lerner began shooting the movie in July, after independently becoming fascinated with the case. They rely heavily on others’ footage. The only recording of the Cathedral performance looks like it was shot on a phone, and other scenes of Pussy Riot performances and rehearsals — including one for the Cathedral — had been previously shot by others.

But the directors did get access to the women’s parents — Nadia and Katia’s fathers, and Masha’s mother all give extensive interviews — and Pozdorovkin and Lerner tell BuzzFeed that the women never hesitated about allowing them to make the movie. “They don’t jealously guard their life rights or anything like that,” says Lerner. “They’re happy to get their story out. They never imposed any sort of editorial control on us.”

One of the biggest misconceptions about Pussy Riot, says Pozdorovkin, is that they are a band. “They’re performance artists,” he says. “They’re a performance troupe that uses the idea of being a band for performances.”

Katia is the only one of the three to get her sentence suspended, and has seen the film. “We wanted her to like it, and she does like it,” says Lerner. “But if she didn’t, she wasn’t going to stop us from doing it in any way. I think they’re very keen for their ideology to be represented correctly, and according to Katia, we have. But it’s not hagiography. There’s a degree of objectivity to it, telling of sort of both sides.”

Pussy Riot’s Cathedral performance

In the West, the Pussy Riot cause has been taken up by everyone from Yoko Ono and Madonna to Daryl Hannah and Green Day. Benefits in London, New York, Los Angeles, and other cities raised money for the women, whose ordeal is viewed largely through a human rights lens; former Le Tigre and Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna wrote on her blog in May that “the case illustrates the gross level of violations against human rights in Russia… The detained activists now need the support of the world’s community.”

But in Russia the women’s case is not as clear-cut, and the filmmakers — while ultimately sympathetic to the Pussy Riot cause — do nonetheless show the complexities of the situation. Under Communism, religion in the Soviet Union was essentially eradicated; the Cathedral where the women’s protest takes place is actually a 1995 reconstruction of the original, which was destroyed by Stalin in 1931. Since the fall of Communism, the Orthodox Church has gradually rebuilt, gaining power and influence particularly under Putin. Older Russians, especially, have welcomed the Church’s presence back into their lives. In several scenes, counter-protestors of Church sympathizers argue that the women’s greatest crime is sacrilege. The Pussy Riot action on the altar of what many consider to be the most sacred space in the Russian Orthodox Church was too much for the Church, and therefore Putin, to ignore. “The Pussy Riot story was a big soap opera in Russia. Everyone talked about it, everyone followed it. Most people in Russia think they got what they deserved, or a lot of people do,” says Pozdorovkin. “In Russia it was seen as purely religious act of hooliganism.”

The links between the Orthodox priests and the levers of Russian power become clear in one of the film’s most fascinating scenes, when the priests of the Russian Orthodox Church, who wear black T-shirts with skulls on them that say “Orthodoxy or Death,” prepare for a counter-protest and refer to de facto leader Nadia — who was previously a minor celebrity in avant-garde Russian circles for her involvement in a performance art piece at the Biology Museum in Moscow, in which she participated in a public orgy while eight months pregnant — as a witch.

The priests’ reaction to Nadia is indicative, it seems, of a culture that fears female power. Nadia declares that women should be allowed to be on the altar at the Cathedral and lead services. “Nadia’s self-presentation is more narcissistic cocky artist, and she wears it really well,” says Pozdorovkin.

The other women have also taken on particular roles. “Masha’s the sort of philosophical, sort of whiny, holier-than-thou sort of thing — in a great way. She questions everyone’s integrity in an interesting way,” says Lerner. “Katia’s a sort of militant feminist, hard-line politics. They’re all very feisty in their ways, in different ways, which is what makes it a wonderful coincidence for filmmakers.”

Now that HBO has bought the film, the directors might add more footage and re-edit parts of it. “There could possibly be more filming,” says Pozdorovkin. “We could make it a bit longer.”

“We certainly had incredibly limited time to prepare,” says Lerner. “It’s not that we’re not pleased with it; it’s that filmmakers could always use more time.”

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