The filmmakers behind the new Sundance-winning documentary on the feminist Russian punk group talk to SBS about modern democracy and the future of the band.
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4 Feb 2013 - 1:45 PM  UPDATED 4 Feb 2013 - 1:45 PM

Among the strong documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival this year, Pussy Riot - A Punk Prayer was a stand-out with its story of the Russian feminist provocateurs Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 24, who in February 2012 were arrested for hooliganism after a performance of an anti-Putin 'punk prayer' in Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral. The film's directors, Britain's Mike Lerner (Hell and Back Again) and the New York-based Russian Maxim Pozdorovkin (Capital), couldn't believe their ease of access to trial footage and what they managed to unearth regarding the women, two of whom remain in prison.

What these women did and what the Occupy Movement has done is to show us the limits of expression and of protest

“The great journey you go on with the film is discovering who these young women are, how different they are from each other and how incredibly mature, articulate and morally sound they are,” notes Lerner.

As the critic for Saltlake magazine writes, “The documentary is an energetic blast of noise and colour that is a must-see for anyone into punk-rock, politics or journalism.”

The film couldn't come at a better time as Tolokonnikova has developed health issues. According to the Guardian newspaper, she was suffering from severe headaches and was moved to a nearby prison hospital on 24 January after an official appeal to the prison director. Inmates in Russian female prison colonies are required to do daily work, sleep in large barracks with up to 200 others and follow a strict routine beginning at 6am. According to Samutsevich (who received a pardon last year and was released from prison), Tolokonnikova was exhausted by the extra evening chores she was given in addition to the eight hours she spends every day sewing uniforms for the Russian security services. The penal colonies inhabited by Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina do not differ significantly from the gulags of the Soviet Union, Alexander Rimmer, a human rights activist who spent four years in Russian prisons, told the newspaper.

In Sundance, Pussy Riot - A Punk Prayer took out the Special jury prize in the world cinema documentary category, “for the sexy, fuck you smirks”, explained the juror. After Lerner and Pozdorovkin accepted the award, the only female member of the production on hand jumped in with, “Kill all sexists and Free Pussy Riot!” (The chorus to their tune 'Kill All Sexists' goes: “Kill All Sexists! Kill All Extremists! Kill All Putinites!”)

Advocating a feminist revolution, Pussy Riot was formed in August 2011 on the day Vladimir Putin returned to Russian presidential politics. The Moscow group is comprised of 11 rotating female members who wear colourful balaclavas, mini-dresses and tights as they perform in public sites and then post videos of their performances on YouTube.

I sat down with Lerner and Pozdorovkin in Sundance to help illuminate their story and talk about making the film.

How did you divide the directing duties?

Maxim Pozdorovkin: We just collaborated, basically. Mike had the initial idea and I did a lot of the ground work. I edited the film in my apartment in Brooklyn.

Did you have a strategy? Obviously you wanted the chronology of the events but it must have been difficult getting some of the footage.

MP: One of the trickiest things early on was figuring out if we had the material to focus on the three women.

The footage of their trial is incredible. How did you get that?

MP: The Russian news agency filmed it. They film all trials. We were really lucky to get that. I befriended the person. It was good because they weren't lazy about it, they actually got nice close ups and stuff. They started rolling before the trial started so you had these wonderful moments with the women themselves. That was kind of a big transformative moment.

It really helps that the women themselves are so commanding and complex. Did you know much about their backgrounds beforehand?

Mike Lerner: Not much. But from the first moment Nadia [Tolokonnikova] walks in, it's quite extraordinary. She just commands the room.

MP: She has a magnetism that is so rare.

The Angelina Jolie of Russia!

MP: We have made that parallel before.

I love the comment that the Orthodox priests made of her having big thick lips as if it's a sinful thing and calling her a “strong demon”.

MP: Yeah, she's very stubborn.

ML: Obviously one of the things for Pussy Riot is a campaign against the extraordinary levels of misogyny and sexism in their country and you don't have to push many buttons to get that kind of reaction out of people. We didn't want to make a film that sort of satirises Russian society, but these people do exist and the reaction against the women was massive. I was at a demonstration and there were 100,000 people praying that the women would go to hell because they perceived the women had insulted them. It's pretty medieval stuff actually.

MP: For a while Russians were really obsessed with talking about this, even though most people are against Pussy Riot and don't support them. The altar where they performed is also the holiest place where women aren't allowed to go.

ML: But the fact that it crossed over from the civic realm to a criminal realm, that's the issue. Outside the cathedral is a list of things you are not supposed to do and it doesn't have to jump up and down in a ski mask, but you should have your arms covered. To transgress those rules would result in your ejection from the cathedral and possibly a small fine or something, but not two, three years in prison. So it did transform itself into this amazing trial of the decade, if not more.

That the cathedral had been blown up by the Bolsheviks and was rebuilt is quite symbolic.

MP: Yes, that was the main insult. It brought back a lot of painful memories for people and I think that's why it was taken as an act of war.

What was it like filming in Moscow?

ML: At times you are filming some pretty hairy scenes but at no stage did police come and try to take the camera. They are very polite actually. Other things are difficult and certainly following the judicial process there is labyrinthine and you don't really know from one week to another what's going to happen. As a filmmaker you don't know if the film's going to take two weeks or a year because nobody really knows. So things like that are very problematic and simply the cost of being in Moscow is really challenging for independent filmmakers. All the journalists said, “What are you doing here? What's the interest to British TV?” I'd say, “We invented punk rock so that's why we are here because we are interested in punk.” There was a certain degree of foreigners not really being entitled to make this film, but we had Max, so it wasn't such an issue.

We never wanted this to be an anti-Russian film; we want this film to be a pro-Russian film and certainly a pro freedom of speech film. What these women did and what the Occupy Movement has done is to show us the limits of expression and of protest. You can go this far and no further or then you are going to get this violent and oppressive reaction.

MP: Russia is interesting in terms of women as it's a very patriarchal society. Katia [Samutsevich] and I talked a lot about this, that Russia had one of the most progressive feminist movements between 1905 and 1917. So after the revolution, other than Australia, it became the first place where women could easily divorce, where abortions were legal and where women had the right to vote. It was by far the most progressive amongst the European societies in terms of feminism, but it never had a second wave of feminism like you did. So in a way the girls are trying to make that happen.

At the premiere here we had Katia on Skype taking questions from the audience. When she was released we kind of became friends and we talked a lot and discussed the kind of story we were doing and showed her cuts. She is very supportive and she likes that the film shows other sides of the story and people who feel differently. For example, she really enjoys that we show the prosecution lawyers, who are liberals and believe that this has done nothing but damage to the liberal movement in Russia. She has been great and I think she has talked to Nadia and Masha (Alyokhina) about the film as well.

Will Pussy Riot continue on their path?

MP: I think they will continue but it's hard to say. In fact, we talked about this yesterday, about whether it's possible for Pussy Riot to perform because criminal charges could again be pressed against them. I think the parallel with the Occupy Movement is interesting because at the end of the day what happened there was that the government tolerated it up to a point then sided with corporate interests. In the Pussy Riot story there is also a desire on the part of the masses and the conservative branch of society for them to be punished, and the government sided with that.

One of the reasons we wanted to make the film was because it's such a big story, yet both the headlines in the West and in Russia have been so limiting and superficial. In the U.S. it was mostly that a punk band was arrested for making a political protest, which is really not the story, while in Russia it was about these militant hooligans who hate religion, so it was mostly a religious thing. In reality, the story is so much richer as it's this perfect storm of history and politics, feminism and these young women coming together. So in a way we wanted to capture that.