Pussy Riot: Planting the seeds of change

Pussy Riot

In capturing the trial of Pussy Riot, documentary maker Mike Lerner didn’t just set out to tell a good story. As his film hits the screen, he tells OnTheBox why he thinks the Russian protest group is worth celebrating.

On February 1, 2012, five women wearing Day-Glo dresses and leggings donned even brighter balaclavas, walked onto the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and begun to perform a punk prayer. Their verse, a protest against the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in returning Vladimir Putin to the presidency, as well as Russia’s treatment of women and its gay community, was cut off after less than a minute, and they were swiftly escorted from the premises.

Those women were, of course, part of punk protest collective Pussy Riot, and for three of them the performance would lead to their arrest, trial and sentencing to two years in a penal colony. With the charge of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred appearing more than a little trumped up (no service was taking place at the time of the protest and the cathedral was sparsely populated), collective disappointment at the conviction went as high as the White House, while their cause was championed by artists and entertainers around the world.

Mike Lerner, co-director of documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, clearly stands with this group. While his film provides great insight into the women behind the masks, capturing their consistent dignity during the court hearing, it also sets it off against footage of Stalinist show trials and features interviews with Orthodox acolytes who dress like biker gangs and talk like extras from The Crucible. No-one watching will be left in any doubt that Pussy Riot’s performances were a courageous (if at times slightly silly) poke in the eye at a confoundingly repressive regime.

Lerner freely admits he is an unashamed supporter of Pussy Riot: “We had a great deal of luck on so many levels with this film, and one of them was the casting of it – to have these three individuals as your stars is remarkable. You won’t find too much professional objectivity on our behalf. We tried to give context to the film and allow their objectors a voice, but clearly they are inspirational figures we would like to celebrate.”

Inspired by photographs of Pussy Riot’s first performance in Red Square in January 2012, Lerner travelled to Moscow and began following the story shortly after the Cathedral protest and arrests the following month. After the swift one and a half month trial, he rushed back to New York to prepare a cut for the Sundance Film Festival at the start of this year – a similarly rapid turnaround. “It was a bit scary,” he reveals, “but it had a great energy in the fact that it was, and still is, such an ongoing story.”

It wasn’t journalistic instinct alone that took Lerner to Russia. As someone who grew up involved in music in Britain’s original punk era of the late 1970s and early 1980s, he saw in Pussy Riot what he describes as “a sweet spot” where punk, art, politics and a tale of morality came together.

“It’s so morally unambivalent,” he urges, the passion for his subjects clearly audible. “Anyone that considers what they did to be worthy of imprisonment is deranged, quite frankly. We’ve got a lot of moral right on our side, so that makes it an easy film to be excited about. They are emblematic of the struggle for freedom of speech everywhere in the world.”

As is obvious from the film, the Russia that Lerner found himself in is one where equality and freedom of speech are as hard to come by as it ever was. Although the aforementioned Orthodox biker acolytes may look comical, the misogynistic bile that pours from their mouths when discussing Pussy Riot is shocking. “The film often gets a lot of laughs because there’s a lot of incredibly surreal and bizarre rhetoric and behaviour in it, but actually it is no laughing matter and what’s happening there is very upsetting for anybody that has known better,” Lerner explaines. “It is depressing to take a backwards step now, having achieved democracy in that country through years of struggle, only to then have it taken away so quickly and easily by somebody so vain.”

The target of Lerner’s ire here is of course Putin, who he says “could have stopped this charade at any moment”. But in his eyes the real instigator of Pussy Riot’s prosecution was the Church. “They saw it as an attack on Orthodoxy in Russia. Well actually Orthodoxy is in perfectly good shape in Russia. There is nobody attacking it and it is under no threat whatsoever, but they magicked up this crisis as represented by Pussy Riot, whereby the state had to come to the defence of the believers. It was a brilliant piece of fantasy.”

In the short term Lerner believes that Putin and the Church has gained an advantage, with the action against Pussy Riot helping both to shore up support from their base following unfavourable media coverage in the aftermath of Putin’s re-election. In the long run though, he is certain Pussy Riot’s actions have planted the seed for change. “The consciousness of young people in Russia has been opened up to the possibility of alternative ways of thinking, especially in terms of gender equality, gay rights and more. Feminism has now been put on the agenda as something that needs to be discussed, and while people aren’t going to immediately leap up and form feminist parties, their personal thinking towards it has been changed.”

It is obvious Lerner hopes his documentary will be the water that helps that seed grow. “The ripple effect of what they’ve done will continue to have an impact. It’s impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. I’m absolutely convinced that in the long term it demonstrates a humiliation for Russia, its legal system and for the church. That won’t go away – we’ve made a film about it, there’ll be countless books on it, so it’s going to stay around for a while.”

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is out in cinemas now.

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