Pussy Riot, the movie: a film about the punk group’s trials makes the Oscar longlist

Pussy Riot, the movie: a film about the punk group's trials makes the Oscar longlist

The inside story of the protest group has been included on the Oscar longlist

4 December 2013

They made international headlines in February last year after they were arrested for their anti-Putin song in a Moscow cathedral and now a documentary about them has been longlisted for an Oscar. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, which won a Special Jury Award for Punk Spirit after debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in January, is one of 15 films in the Best Documentary category. The final nominees will be announced on 16 January 2014.

Directed by Michael Lerner, Oscar-nominated for his previous film Afghan Star, and Russian filmmaker Maxim Pozdorovkin, the film follows the band’s three members — Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich — for six months, covering their arrest and trial in 2012. The trio were found guilty of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred and sentenced to two years in jail, although Samutsevich was subsequently freed. With privileged access to the group and exclusive footage, the film provides an in-depth look at the women behind the distinctive balaclavas.

How does it feel to have made this far in the Oscar selection process?

Michael Lerner: Obviously Maxim and I are delighted that the plight and continuing struggle of Nadia, Masha and Katya is being highlighted and promoted by the inclusion of the film on the Oscar’s shortlist. But we must point out that the film has not been ‘nominated’ as of yet.

Why did you decide to make a film on Pussy Riot?

ML: I saw pictures of their action in Red Square in January 2012 and thought to myself, “Who are these people? What do they want?” As a filmmaker, I’m always looking for interesting subject matters and this immediately struck me as a potentially fascinating story. The next thing I knew, they’d been arrested for the cathedral action. I immediately thought that this was definitely a story but we didn’t know how it was going to develop. They could have been released or fined. It would still have been a very interesting film, but obviously what happened has become one of the most interesting stories of the decade with huge national and international resonance. We were lucky in that respect.

Maxim Pozdorovkin: I grew up in Moscow and when I heard about them for the first time there was this great realisation of a shared past — we were both living through the same time. We liked the same artists, the same conceptual art, the avant-garde as well as punk rock. So there was an immediate appeal even beforehand. Then as we progressed through the trial I discovered yet more similarities.

Why do you think Pussy Riot received so much attention in the western media?

ML: I think it’s the juxtaposition of them, with their colourful balaclavas and a brutalist state trying to stop them doing wanted. It’s very David and Goliath, which is a cliche, but it’s true. They’re homemade, innocent and naive in so many ways.

MP: I think the international reaction was so strong because it was such a brilliant concept; their outfits, the way they perform and the fact that they targeted symbols of power — a longstanding Russian tradition. Within Russia, the biggest catalyst was the Patriarch who made it into a big story from the very beginning and the government ran along with it, for its own reasons.

Did the attention help you promote the documentary or help you get it into festivals?

ML: The name recognition, the story and the enormous public interest in their plight was obviously a great gift for the film. You don’t normally have that ready-made audience and ready-made support. So yes, in terms of people buying the film or financing it, it made a massive difference.

“If you know a lot about them already, you’ll learn a lot more and if you don’t, you’ll understand why it became such a huge story”

Do you regard them as artists or as political protesters?

MP: They’re artists. The three of them are quite different. Nadia and Katya come much more from an artist’s tradition. Katya is a hardcore feminist and very politically and philosophically savvy. Masha comes from an environmentalist background; she’s more activist than artist. They see themselves continuing the line of Viennese Actionism as well as other kinds of performance art such as Moscow Conceptualistm.

Are they unique as a protest and artistic movement in Russia?

MP: What’s great about them is that they are some of the few people in Russia to combine politics and art into something different. They’re intellectual artists who see themselves very much a part of the Russian tradition of contemporary and radical art combined with utopianism and radical politics. Russia never had a proper punk movement, so there was never the 1977 to 1981 moment as there was in the west. Or for that matter, a performance art movement as there was in Yugoslavia and elsewhere. Pussy Riot was so explosive because it brought those elements to Russian culture.

What can viewers learn about Pussy Riot from your film, given that they’ve received so much coverage?

ML: A lot. We have great insight into the formation of their characters because their family and their biographies explain a lot about who they are and what they did. It’s very much like being at the trial, which in itself is bizarre, surreal, and dramatic. The highlights are the closing speeches. They’re an extraordinarily poetic call to reason and justice. Their idealism is inspiring. If you know a lot about them already, you’ll learn a lot more and if you don’t, you’ll understand why it became such a huge story.

MP: In the west it’s seen purely in political terms, whereas in Russia it was seen in religious terms. The truth in somewhere in between and much more complex. Our film builds on that.

ML: It will be a long time before we come across a story that is quite so layered and so fascinating. It tells so much about Russia: the nature of artistic dissidence and the role art has to play in social progress.

And what next for the protest movement?

MP: The benefit of Pussy Riot for Russia was that it triggered a debate about feminism and feminist politics. Even if people disagree with them, I think it inadvertently makes people more tolerant, because the next time something like this happens people won’t care as much. Despite the extremist backlash, and the new legislation against blasphemy, it’s been positive, especially on a cultural level.

Do you want to show the film in Russia?

ML: We’d like to. The challenge will be getting a distribution license for it but they may say, “Who cares?” There’s nothing that hasn’t already been said and the film is certainly not anti-Putin. I’m not going to say the film in balanced. Every film is subjective but it is not a piece of Pussy Riot propaganda. One of the conclusions we draw in the film is that they made a huge mistake and never intended to insult or upset those with religious beliefs. That’s not part of their politics. They may be anti-nationalist, but they’re not anti-religious. They were genuinely shocked and sorry for the offence they caused. They said as much in the trial a number of times.

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