Pussy Riot Documentarian Talks Punk & Rebellion in Russia

By
Oliver Lunn

“In the 16th century they would have hanged and burned them," says one Russian Orthodox Christian in Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer.

Since the completion of Maxim Pozdorovkin's and Mike Lerner's inspirational documentary, the band have been released from prison under Russian parliament's amnesty and are now – bizarrely – running for Moscow city government. We caught up with Maxim to chat about individualism in Russia and making a film about subjects he couldn't interview. 

GFW: Where did you pick up Pussy Riot's story as a filmmaker? After the arrest?
Maxim Pozdorovkin: Yeah, after their arrest ... I grew up in Moscow and was interested in avant-garde art, punk rock, performance art and all these things. And while I was in Moscow doing pre-production on another film, I started going to the trial and I thought it was one of the most interesting things I’d ever seen, and I saw that it was filmed ... while looking through footage I realised that not only had the camera men filmed the trial incredibly well, but they had actually started filming hours before so you could see these moments where the girls are speaking among themselves. And it was such a window into their experience.

Were you shocked by the global attention their case received?
Actually, no! Maybe the scale of it was a little bit surprising. I think what’s amazing about the story is the fact that it’s like this perfect storm, perfect layering of all these elements: society, art, politics, religious fundamentalism, the limits of good taste…

I thought there were significant misconceptions about how the story was presented both in the West and in Russia. In Russia they were seen as vulgar hooligans who just wanted to offend religious people, which is nonsense. But in the West it was like, they sang this song and they’re a punk band and because the song was anti-Putin they were put in jail, which is also nonsense. Because, I mean, you can look at what they did before the arrest and they received no punishment for it. They sang "Putin pissed himself on Red Square" and nothing happened to them. And a lot of other performance art that could put you in jail in other countries.

My personal thing is that Putin – I can’t say for sure – I don’t think he was that involved in any of this. He seemed somewhat clueless for a long time. And then he just didn’t stop it ... So in a way, those biker priests in the movie, they’re kind of like this Bizarro World Pussy Riot that reveals the space a little in performances, burn Madonna posters and Harry Potter books and things like that.

Image courtesy of Kinosmith Inc.

What do you think their case reveals about the Russian government and Russian society today?
I think that it reveals the kind of excessively punitive nature of the Russian judicial system ... On the one hand, comparing anything that’s happening right now to Stalinism or anything, is beyond historically irresponsible and just absurd in many ways. I think in general one thing I always have to explain to people, and I think it’s a misconception that stems from Russia and the Soviet Union being communist, which is associated with sort of left wing and liberal values sometimes in the West, whereas in reality Russia’s a very Conservative country. And I think that that’s another thing, especially once you go outside of Moscow and St Petersburg. There are these little pockets, but it’s generally very conservative.

How hard do you think it is to express yourself as an individual in Russia today, compared to the West?
There’s no problem with that.

Where are the boundaries? Is it these protests?
There isn’t any ... If you look as an example at the crowds of journalists that are inside the court room, that are cheering – those are all, like, anti-Putin, anti-government basically. Pro-Pussy Riot, pro-active journalists. The problem is that the government controls the political message on the streaming federal channels, which are free. And that message ensures enough of a voting bloc that they’ll win and Putin will remain popular.

In terms of free expression, I think the most radical art and most interesting artists are happening there [Russia] at the moment. With Pussy Riot. I mean, I think the art scene there is really exciting because of how anti-commercial and how anti-capitalist and how sort of innovative it is at the moment.

Image courtesy of Kinosmith Inc.

I always find myself saying Russia’s actually so similar to the United States, especially the United Stes under Bush. Because Putin, he’s a popular, sort of populist, kind of like macho instinct guy—

Like Bush?
He has that appeal. A lot of the things that he does, these kind of populist gestures like raising people’s wages and doing all these things – like Bush’s $300 tax rebates and things like that.

There is a big problem in Russia with top down governance, but certain things like the gay laws are actually bottom up – that wasn’t a gay pun. They originally came out of a regional area of St Petersburg and they took it to the top.

Was it tricky to piece the band’s story together without actually interviewing them?
Well, yeah. From the beginning, the principal was that you could make the most feminist film by letting them speak as much as possible. In other words, their performances, their speeches and their material in court ... For me what I wanted to do partially was to demystify the course of events, to make it this present-tense thing where you’re sort of in the moments and use interviews to catch stuff as sparingly as possible.

Image courtesy of Kinosmith Inc.

Did you think of it as a courtroom drama?
Absolutely. I like using these simple structures as a way, like a Trojan horse for their ideas. I have this new film right now that’s chronological/biography. It’s something similar. It’s called The Notorious Mr. Bout. It just premiered at Sundance a few weeks ago. It’s about this Russian arms dealer named Viktor Bout it was an inspiration for a Nicolas Cage character in Lord of War.

What do you think about the announcement that Pussy Riot members will run for Moscow city government?
I think what they’re doing right now is really great. I really liked working with them. I think what they’re doing right now is really good and really smart. In a way, they will still maintain their moral authority ... I think they see themselves, in terms of, you know, it’s a game changer for them. In terms of utilising that, I think they’re being very smart and they see themselves as leading a new political movement or a new vision for Russia. 

'Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer' is released in Toronto on 14 February, and is out now in the US/UK. 

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