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Director Maxim Pozdorovkin Discusses “Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer”

Posted on Tuesday, June 25th, 2013 at 5:08 pm

Author: Feature Writer

Gc contributor: Lauren Wissot

Suffice to say that by now – thanks to Amnesty International and/or Madonna – you’ve probably heard of Pussy Riot, the feminist punk rock collective that burst onto the international scene after a guerrilla performance at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior led to the arrest and conviction of three of its balaclava-sporting members. Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s HBO documentary “Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer” furthers the trio’s tale, taking the viewer behind the scenes of the well publicized story and right into the Russian courtroom where Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich made their show trial literal. I spoke with co-director Maxim Pozdorovkin prior to the film’s NYC festival premiere at the 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

Lauren Wissot: So how did this partnership come about? I know Mike is a producer of some fairly well known docs (among them “Hell and Back Again” and “Afghan Star”), though I’m less familiar with your work. Was co-directing the original plan?

Maxim Pozdorovkin: Mike and I had been friends after meeting at Sheffield (Doc/Fest), and met again in Moscow after three members of Pussy Riot were arrested. I had grown up in Moscow, and was there doing pre-production for my next film, “The Notorious Mr. Bout” about the alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Mike and I both shared an interest in punk rock and avant-garde art, and fell into working together rather seamlessly. Our plan was to make a film in which we let the women of Pussy Riot speak and tell their own story using their art and their artwork. The film begins with an epigraph from Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it.” What drew us to the story was the way Pussy Riot reminded us, better than anyone else in recent history, that art should strive to be more than gallery fodder.

LW: I think the film’s greatest strength is the courtroom footage – and particularly the access you two managed to gain. How did you accomplish this feat?

MP: From the very beginning we knew that the most interesting film would be one that was immersive and present tense while, at the same time, revealing the individuals behind the colorful balaclavas. Whether that film was possible was not at all clear at the outset. Sitting inside the courtroom, I was amazed by the way the women of Pussy Riot managed to gain the upper hand and transform the trial into a piece of performance art. The women’s motion to have the proceedings recorded was granted. RIA Novosti, the Russian equivalent of Reuters, filmed the trial. Upon inquiring about licensing material I discovered a treasure trove of never-before-seen rushes, which showed the women interacting, amongst themselves and with their lawyers, before the trial commenced each day. These moments were all the more invaluable for the fact that the three women awaited trial in separate cells and did not have a chance to interact. These moments awaiting trial were a window and everything we dreamed the film could be.

LW: Was there ever any intent for your doc to be used as a political tool, to pressure the Kremlin directly into releasing the members of the band? Unlike Kirby Dick’s “The Invisible War,” which has pushed/shamed the U.S. government into examining the rape epidemic in our military, I don’t see “Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer” doing much to sway Putin (who seems rather unperturbed by international criticism, not to mention shameless by nature).

MP: Growing up in the Soviet Union, one becomes allergic to propaganda in all its forms. While we as filmmakers sympathize with the women and support their politics, the story of Pussy Riot’s 40-second performance is too rich and historically multi-layered to be reduced to a political tool. In fact, we believe it will go down in history as the most controversial piece of performance art. The film tries to answer why this act became such a perfect storm. After all, Pussy Riot’s previous performance had been as daring and as antagonistic to the ruling elite.

One of the misconceptions that the film tries to address is the belief that the women’s trial was something orchestrated by Putin. In many ways, Patriarch Kirill and the Moscow Patriarchy was a more significant catalyst for the criminal proceedings. Since the sentencing conservative forces in Russian society have continued to use the incident in the Cathedral to push forward legislation that furthered their agenda, including laws that criminalize offending the feelings of believers. Tellingly, the Kremlin was happy to align itself with the Church, instead of defending the secular principles of the Russian constitution. This reaction proves the point about collusion of church and state, the very point that Pussy Riot were trying to make with their Cathedral performance.

LW: Were you ever worried that the film might unintentionally make things worse for the imprisoned band members? Prominent (liberal leaning) westerners rushing to the aid of Jafar Panahi or Ai Weiwei, for example, seems in many instances to have hardened Iran’s and China’s respective stances towards those activist artists.

MP: We are often asked whether the outpouring of international support for Pussy Riot lessened or extended the women’s sentence. In all actuality, it probably had no impact. As Maria Aliokhina, one of the group’s members, says in her closing statement, “this trial is typical and speaks volumes.” While the story of Pussy Riot is in every way extraordinary, it is also endlessly representative of an excessive punitive judicial system, which deprives people of their liberty for non-violent offenses. Though the judicial system remained as impervious as ever during the trial of Pussy Riot, the hundreds of letters, parcels and words of encouragement are invaluable for the women in prison in providing moral support.

LW: I just read that you’re tackling the Bolshoi Ballet attacks for your next film. Probing such sensitive subject matter, do you ever fear for your own safety?

MP: There is a saying that is beloved by all Russians, “those who don’t take risks, don’t get to drink the champagne.”

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