“Pussy Riot” Brings Art and Revolution to HRWFF
In February 2012, a group from the feminist art collective Pussy Riot entered Moscow's revered seat of Russian Orthodoxy, Christ the Saviour Cathedral, wearing their trademark colorful balaclavas (think brightly colored ski masks) and belted out a noisy 40-second song called a "punk prayer protest" near the altar.
What ensued went beyond any expectations.
After being detained for wearing "inappropriate" sleeveless dresses, Nadia, Masha and Katia were accused of offending believers' sentiments and stood trial. They quickly became a cause célèbre around the world, gaining the attention of the likes of Madonna, Sting and Paul McCartney. Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin's documentary Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer picks up on the artist collective's spontaneous shows and eventual detention. Media, both inside and outside Russia, mischaracterized the trial, with those in the country simply dismissing them as hooligans while Western media treated Pussy Riot as a group being jailed for criticizing Putin.
Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer gives an intimate account of the group, including the three individuals who faced prison time for their stunt in the cathedral. Ahead of the film's premiere at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, the film's co-director Maxim Pozdorovkin spoke with FilmLinc Daily about the collective, their insane trial, and the forces within the establishment and the Russian Orthodox Church, including its leader Patriarch Kirill, who conveniently used the women's shocking performance for their own benefit.
FilmLinc Daily: At what point did you become familiar with Pussy Riot and when did you start the documentary?
Maxim Rozdorovkin: I grew up in Moscow, so I knew about various performance art and political performance groups. I think I had heard some things about Pussy Riot in March, shortly after their arrest. I was so fascinated by the trial itself because it was so unlike anything I had ever seen. I felt an immediate sense of kinship because I had grown up with the same loud Russian records and an interest in Russian avant garde art, even to the point where I had arguments with my mother about the importance of feminism in Russia, which she was generally against. Because of how economically crippling the 90s had been in Russia, people who came out of that time were so focused on business and subsequently right-wing. Even those who emigrated to the U.S. at the time turned out to be Republicans. So the idea that these people were left-wing, sort of anti-corporate, anti-establishment artists, had an appeal to me.
FD: How would you describe Pussy Riot?
MP: They're a feminist art collective that take on the guise of a punk band that stages guerrilla performances in symbolic locations. In November 2011 they did four performances, the most famous one being in Red Square and then the final one, which was basically an aborted performance, was in Christ the Savior Cathedral, which leads us to where we are today.
The three convicted members of Pussy Riot.
FD: If someone had pulled the same incident at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, or St. Paul's in London, I'd think it would cause some outrage. There might be an arrest for trespassing, but I don't think a trial, etc., would occur. Why did this happen in Russia and what does that say about the ties between Church and State?
MP: In Russia there are a few reasons it caused such an uproar. One reason is that there's a big difference between Western Christianity and Eastern Orthodox Christianity in that Orthodoxy is a great deal more pagan as a religion, so the idea that you could desecrate a place is much more real. So the idea that they could trespass and go to the Altar where women aren't allowed to go is in all these things. That was a big deal.
Another thing is that Russia is a much more conservative country than the U.S. or the West, which people don't see because of the communist history. There's a misunderstanding between punk rock and performance art, which is distinguishable. If you think of them as a band, then it's seen as disrespectful. But if you think of it as a developed piece of performance art, which uses music and iconography of religious singing reinvented in a punk version calling on the [Virgin Mary] to protect us and to chase Putin away, then it's different. Patriarch Kirill was so much more of a catalyst against them than anyone in the government. Putin knew about it, and I'm not saying he wasn't against them and he did let it go on, but it was Kirill who really pushed this.
And since then their videos have been ruled extremist in terms of legislation. Three weeks ago, a new law was passed that is being called "the Pussy Riot law," which basically criminalizes offending the feelings of believers, so what they were being charged with was a hate crime. But right now there's an appeal that applying that charge isn't really appropriate. In the short term, the establishment has rallied their conservative base to their cause. Xenophobic sentiment is also being raised by saying that Orthodoxy is under some kind of attack, which of course it isn't. The Patriarch was also suffering some P.R. disasters at the time.
FD: So it was a convenient diversion?
MP: Yes, that's why I say the case was mischaracterized in the West and Russia. In Russia it was portrayed as religious hating hooligans—vulgar women that need to be punished. Their political motivation was ignored, whereas in the West it was portrayed as a band getting in trouble singing an anti-Putin song. That is absurd because before the Christ the Saviour performance, they had played a performance in Red Square called "Putin Pissed Himself," and for that there was only a little fallout. I think they got the equivalent of a $10 fine or something like that.
FD: Had they been a male band, would the reaction have been the same?
MP: It's an interesting question. The Soviet Union had actually been very progressive in terms of women's rights soon after its establishment, with laws passed to protect rights, but in the 60s and 70s there wasn't this second wave of feminism that occurred in the West. So in a way, they're overdue for a feminist revolution. If men had done it, you wouldn't imagine it being more intimidating. The hardcore Orthodox supporters you see in the film actually aren't Putin supporters either, so it appears that they're more against Pussy Riot because they're women who've stepped out of line… [Pussy Riot's] ambitions are much bigger. They want to transform society. Putin is much more of a symbol for the system.
FD: Were they surprised by the international reaction?
MP: I think they were surprised by the whole thing, honestly. Even though they're performance artists and want to generate debate and controversy, they were very happy convincing a few people at a time and wanted to develop an alternative artistic form of opposition… At that point, when they started getting support though, they were very happy because it was good for their morale once they learned of that international support.
FD: Will the film be seen in Russia?
MP: Yes, it's scheduled to be shown in Russia. There's a festival called Art Doc Fest in December. We haven't heard from the Moscow Film Festival. The person who runs it is a supporter of Putin's but, even beyond that, he just hates them and has been very public speaking out against them. But since their detention their videos, including "A Punk Prayer," have been deemed indecent and domestic servers can be fined for showing them, which makes it interesting because our film uses footage from "A Punk Prayer," so does that make the film "extremist?" Only time will tell, but I think we'll be able to show, especially in Moscow, because it's like being New York or L.A. during the Bush years in that it was very trendy to be anti-Bush.
FD: Do you plan to continue making documentaries?
MP: Yes, we're close to finishing a documentary on a Russian arms dealer named Viktor Bout called The Notorious Mr. Bout, and then I think we're doing another film about the Bolshoi Theater and then I'd like to do a fiction film.
Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer screened at Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of the 2013 Human Rights Film Festival.