Articles

Pussy Riot: The Documentary

by Steve Ramos on June 12, 2013

Pussy Riot in action, from the film "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer" (courtesy Roast Beef Productions/the filmmakers)

Pussy Riot in action, from the film “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” (courtesy Roast Beef Productions/the filmmakers)

CINCINNATI — The trending wardrobe of choice for aspiring female protest artists consists of Day-Glo leotards and matching ski masks. Credit the young punk rock performers known as Pussy Riot, feminist activists who led late 2011 civilian protests in Moscow following Vladimir Putin’s controversial reelection as Russia’s president.

Protest performance art was a mostly unknown medium to young Muscovites who grew up under Putin’s conservative government. Pussy Riot changed that with the aid of digital platforms like Twitter and YouTube. The group also became hashtag celebrities and arguably the world’s most famous punk artists after being arrested on charges of hooliganism for their “punk prayer” performance on the altar of Moscow’s landmark Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Their 2012 show trial outside Moscow and prison sentencing tragically sealed their notoriety.

"Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer" directors Maxim Pozdorovkin and Mike Lerner (click to enlarge) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” directors Maxim Pozdorovkin and Mike Lerner (click to enlarge) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

British producer Mike Lerner and Russian expat Maxim Pozdorovkin teamed up as co-directors of the documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, the story of the three female artists arrested — Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova — and sentenced to two years in Russian prison for their performance chanting “Mother Mary, please drive Putin away” in the historic Moscow cathedral. Samutsevich’s sentence was quickly suspended, but Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova recently lost a May 29 appeal to shorten their prison sentences, with Alyokhina undertaking an 11-day hunger strike in protest.

It’s been some months since I first exchanged emails with Lerner and Pozdorovkin, who were busy then with the final days of post-production on Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. The movie makes its broadcast premiere this week on HBO.

“Our dreams were always about doing justice to the story of Pussy Riot,” Pozdorovkin said via email at the time.

Pozdorovkin’s commitment, shared with Lerner, was to move past the hashtags and tell the “full” Pussy Riot story, a global tale of art, freedom of expression vs. extreme censorship, and political outcry. The extra challenge in this case was that the Pussy Riot story kept unfolding long after production wrapped and the final edit was locked.

In the film, Lerner and Pozdorovkin manage to tweak nonfiction formula via a mix of heartfelt interviews with family members of the activists, extensive broadcast footage of the trial, and handheld video of Pussy Riot performances. The Pussy Riot story is well known by now, but Lerner and Pozdorovkin do pull back the curtain and offer audiences some legitimate surprises. The family interviews, by the far the most emotional sequences, reveal the unwavering support the women receive from their homes. The trial footage continues to astound, a publicity stunt by the Russian government taken to the extreme, with the Pussy Riot accused sitting in a glass box. Finally, there are performance videos, guaranteed to make one cheer.

The result is an energetic documentary hybrid — part art biography, part sociopolitical story — all told under the overarching theme of using social media to build a worldwide community of fans and supporters.

Yekaterina Samutsevich Skypes with a premiere audience "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer" (click to enlarge) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Yekaterina Samutsevich Skypes with a premiere audience “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” (click to enlarge) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Lerner and Pozdorovkin went to Sundance earlier this year to build awareness for the movie but also to reignite the Pussy Riot cause. They revealed a flair for showbiz savvy by having a Skype chat with Samutsevich, who told the premiere audience that she and her fellow Pussy Riot artists were aware of the growing hype.

“We did know there was some sort of global awareness going on,” Samutsevich said, her image flickering across the auditorium screen. “And then as it got bigger and bigger with Madonna’s performance and all these other things. We felt there was more support coming our way.”

Inspired in part by Pussy Riot’s embrace of digital tools, Lerner and Pozdorovkin were excited about the chance to help the cause with their movie. Sitting side-by-side in a hotel bedroom for a later interview, they spoke in tandem, completing each other’s sentences about sharing the Pussy Riot story and their spirit for protest art.

“Pussy Riot aren’t a band,” Pozdorovkin said. “They’re a group of essentially media performance artists who staged these public guerilla performances. They don’t really play the music. They have a ghetto blaster. They make videos and post them the next day with the idea that they’re supposed to provoke conversations.

A member of Pussy Riot performing their "punk prayer," from the film "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer" (courtesy Roast Beef Productions/the filmmakers)

A member of Pussy Riot performing their “punk prayer,” from the film “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” (courtesy Roast Beef Productions/the filmmakers)

“I remember being at the trial and the court, and it was clear that this was a battle between two generations. The new generation was using this kind of media to get their message across, whereas the more conservative channel and government used more traditional channels like television.”

Despite all the talk of Twitter fame and celebrities like Paul McCartney speaking out in support of Pussy Riot, Lerner and Pozdorovkin insisted they have reasonable expectations for Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. They quickly stopped any talk of their movie making political waves, and they’ve kept their publicity modest, refusing any showy grabs at tabloid headlines except for select speaking events and interviews featuring two non-incarcerated members of Pussy Riot, who are going by the pseudonyms Fara and Shaiba.

“There are great parallels between Pussy Riot and the Occupy Movement,” Lerner added. “It’s not about winning or failing. It’s about opening up a new form of expression and asking society what the allowable limits of protest are. That’s what they did, and they got an answer.”

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer plays this month on HBO.

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  • Amelia

    I saw these filmmakers interviewed on Jon Stewart. One of the points they raised was that it was possible all this global attention might have the opposite affect they hope for. In other words, that all this public outcry could just harden Putin’s administration against ever shortening these women’s sentences (lest they appear “weak” or to be bowing to Western intervention). I do hope that’s not the case.

    Great article.

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