Russian to judgment
August 26, 2013
At its premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer" earned a special jury award in the World Cinema-Documentary category and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize in the same category. It was a nice way for the film to enter the world, but "Pussy Riot" has an even more momentous festival date ahead of it.
In December, the documentary is scheduled to be shown at ArtDokFest in Moscow. That screening is bound to receive an impassioned, probably divisive and maybe even explosive reaction.
The film, which shows at 8:45 tonight in the Wheeler Opera House's MountainSummit, documents the actions from last year by the politically charged, feminist performance-art group Pussy Riot. In January 2012, several members of the collective, in their signature colorful balaclava masks, with a few guitars and purple smoke, played the song "Putin Zassal" (often translated as "Putin Has Pissed Himself") in Moscow's Red Square. That put the group firmly on the radar screen.
A month later they staged a performance in the sanctuary of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, singing "Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away." The lyrics attacked both Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church and the alliance between the two that has helped drive modern Russian politics. Three of the young women who make up Pussy Riot were arrested, tried and sentenced to two years in prison. "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer" features the performances, the trial and reactions from the families of the young women, with abundant pointed criticism of Putin's authoritative policies.
"It's one thing to show the rest of the world. But I think it's really important for Russians to see this," Mike Lerner, a London-based co-director of the film, said by phone.
Lerner — and his co-director, Russian filmmaker Maxim Pozdorovkin, who will be in attendance for a post-screening conversation tonight — tried to enter the film in the Moscow International Film Festival, which took place in June. The directors didn't hear a word back from the festival organizers, which came as no surprise to Lerner, who pointed out that the Moscow International Film Festival is closely aligned with the Russian state. (As for the prospects at the more independent ArtDokFest, Lerner said, "We're confident the screening will go ahead. Hopefully there won't be any trouble.")
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Any reaction in Russia to "Pussy Riot" is bound to be heavily influenced by a significant dynamic. While Western audiences are sure to be overwhelmingly supportive of Pussy Riot's nonviolent, even humorous way of presenting its views (the Sundance Special Jury Prize was accompanied by a note reading, "for their bold and articulate confrontation with power and for the sexy f–k-you smirks"), Russians on the whole believe that the members of Pussy Riot got what they deserve.
"Most people are against Pussy Riot — 80 percent maybe," Lerner said. "In Russia there are many cases of people being arrested for demonstrating. To Russians, two years in prison, that doesn't shock people as much as it does in the West. By Russian standards, this isn't so surprising."
Lerner, whose filmography as a producer includes this year's "The Square," about the current political uprising in Egypt, and 2009's "Afghan Star," about a controversial Afghan take on "American Idol," claims not to be an activist.
"I'm someone who likes to think for himself and encourage others to do the same," he said.
When he saw images of Pussy Riot's Red Square performance in the Britain press, he was intrigued by the cinematic possibilities.
"I'm interested in art and politics and where they meet," he said. "This struck me as something we had to do. When they got arrested, it seemed to so represent the political tensions of that time, when Putin came back to power. There was a feeling that the opposition was finding its feet. And Pussy Riot seemed to encapsulate that with the shocking nature of their performance. It was witty and smart — epic on the one hand and almost homemade and naive on the other. That seemed to make for a good story."
Lerner contacted Pozdorovkin, whom he had met through mutual filmmaking friends and who shared Lerner's political positions. Pozdorovkin happened to be in Moscow during the trials of the three young women and was available to film the events with Lerner. "Pussy Riot" benefits from a close-up view of the action as it unfolds; if Russia shuns coverage of Pussy Riot, it is not reflected in the access provided to the filmmakers. The documentary features extensive footage of the trial, including statements made by the judge and the accused — Masha, Nadia and Katia. The women's families and attorneys are also prominent in the film.
"They were keen to see a film made, especially on the international scale, a more objective, outside film," said Lerner, who added that the state-controlled press in Russia portrayed Pussy Riot in a negative light, while the smaller independent press was generally supportive.
"Pussy Riot" illuminates a variety of dynamics in Russian society. Most evident is the paranoia of the state under Putin as it cracks down on peaceful protest.
"The Pussy Riot incident shows them to be far more dictatorial and oppressive a regime than they actually are," Lerner said. "Russia isn't China; it isn't Iran. But they're acting like it. They've rolled back a lot of reforms since Glasnost. They've moved back to the Stalinist days. You see the reaction of the state; it reveals an insecurity. Why bother with these women?"
Another factor at play is sexism, not only of the state but of the Russian Orthodox church. "People were very angered that these women challenged the church in this way," Lerner said. "If men had done it, they would have been angered. But not like they are annoyed by women doing it. The church and the extremists within the church, they are nationalistic, homophobic, misogynistic. And they make no bones about it."
Perhaps the main object of Pussy Riot's protests is the alliance between the state and the church.
"That's one of the things Pussy Riot was trying to demonstrate against, this cozy arrangement between Putin and the ultra-nationalist Orthodox church, this ultra-nationalism which Putin has found a way to use to his advantage," Lerner said.
Lerner also believes there is a bigger context here. "Pussy Riot," he noted, is a reflection not only of Russian society but of political shifts going on around the world, even in the West. He points to recent cases such as the American computer specialist Edward Snowden who leaked details of secret government surveillance programs in the U.S. and Britain and the nine-hour-long detention at London's Heathrow airport of a man whose partner had covered the Snowden case in the British press.
"These are things you'd expect an Iranian or Chinese regime to do," Lerner said. "The world has a problem with freedom. These freedoms are so hard-won — look at the revolution in Egypt. These things are precious, and we in the U.K. and America shouldn't be complacent about our freedoms. We're moving closer to oppression, and in our cases, it's a self-elected one, which makes it more problematic."
Lerner hopes the December screening of "Pussy Riot" in Moscow makes Russians see the women of Pussy Riot in a new way.
"I hope they see their intentions and character, that an injustice has been done against them," he said. "I hope they see that these women are not hooligans. They're patriots — they want to make the country a better place for their children to live in. Their motives are honorable."
Lerner is anxious to see just how receptive the Russian public will be to his film.
"We'll see if any distributors or TV channels have the balls to buy it," he said.