One on One Persecution of Pussy Riot shows Putin’s insecurity, says maker of doc on protest group

17-03-2014 16:18 | Ian Willoughby

One of the most popular films at the recent One World festival of human rights documentaries in Prague was Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. The story of the trial of three members of Pussy Riot for attempting to perform a protest song at a Moscow cathedral, it draws on interviews with their relatives and other members of the collective to create a vivid portrait of the controversial Russian group. Ahead of a screening I asked co-director Mike Lerner what had attracted him to the subject.

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'Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer', photo: archive of One World'Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer', photo: archive of One World “What drew me to the subject in the first place was the appearance of Pussy Riot in the British press. Their performance in front of the Kremlin on Red Square was the most mind-blowing thing I’d ever seen. I was immediately struck by what they were trying to do and wanted to find out more about them.

“Then when they were arrested for their cathedral action it just seemed to be the ideal subject for a film, i.e., the idea of the state putting artists on trial, kind of reminiscent of Dostoevsky or the Dreyfus Affair, or something like that. It seemed a really big moment – which it proved to be, I think.”

You have some fantastic footage, including of them being questioned, immediately after being arrested or soon afterwards. How did you get that?

“We acquired that from somebody else. We started making the film after their arrest. There’s also film of them rehearsing for that performance that was filmed by the BBC.

“Actually at one point the Kremlin were accusing the BBC of being behind the whole Pussy Riot thing. I wish they were that imaginative and dissident in their culture to have done such a thing, but of course they didn’t. But we’re grateful that they filmed this stuff of course.”

One interesting aspect is that their parents appear. Was it hard getting them on board?

“Some more than others. Nadya’s [Nadezhda Tolokonnikova] father was very much in the forefront of what she does and very much supportive of what she does.

“Masha’s [Maria Alyokhina] mother was, by contrast, very against what they’d done and also had been very much hounded by the Russian press, so she was very afraid of speaking out and speaking publicly.

“But we did manage to persuade her to contribute to the film and give a more truthful picture of who her daughter was and what she was trying to do.”

I saw an earlier interview with you where you said that their performance at the cathedral [Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour] was “the most significant piece of performance art ever.” Really?

“Well, I think in terms of its impact, yes. I’m a great fan of Joseph Beuys or Yves Klein or any of these great performance artists. But I think their impact is relatively small.

Mike Lerner, photo: Ian WilloughbyMike Lerner, photo: Ian Willoughby “I think that in terms of the way this piece of art, which is what it is, has reached people and has inspired many people, I think it’s got a place in art history. I really do.”

Pussy Riot are of course a collective, not just the three members who were put on trial. One of the others says that the reaction to the attempted performance at the cathedral was stronger than they had expected. Was that a view shared by the three who were arrested?

“I guess so, because if you look at the things that they did before the cathedral, they were also pretty provocative and big events, for which they suffered fines of 15 dollars.

“So I think they were surprised by the reaction of the church in particular to what they did. A lot of what was driving the trial was I think this massive outcry from Kiril, the Russian pope. He has huge sway in Russian politics as well. I think he was really driving the whole case, in many ways.”

They became hugely well-known internationally. Were they aware of the huge international impact they made?

“They were. Of course their lawyers and their families and their friends were telling them about it. Madonna staged a performance in Moscow just before the trial, and they were well aware of this.

“Whilst I don’t think that it necessarily had any impact whatsoever on the outcome of the trial, it obviously was very good for their morale to know that people around the world were supporting them and thinking about them.”

What impact has what they do had on Russian society?

“I think it’s very early to say. My gut feeling is that they really did change something in the consciousness of young people in Russia especially.

“Debates about feminism and gay rights and all these things weren’t really as much in the public discourse as they then became after Pussy Riot. I think it’s too early to tell the long-term impact, but I feel it’s significant.”

What do you think is the greatest misconception about Pussy Riot, if there is one?

“I suppose it’s the simple idea that they’re a band. People keep expecting them to perform and to release albums and to all that. But of course they’re artists pretending to be a band as part of this media performance – which has confused a lot of people.”

Pussy Riot, photo: Igor Muchin, CC-BY-SA 3.0Pussy Riot, photo: Igor Muchin, CC-BY-SA 3.0 Does that mean they essentially have no connection with punk or punk music as we might know it from the UK or the States?

“Well, they definitely decided to take on a punk aesthetic and they certainly were big fans of bands like Cockney Rejects and UK Subs…”

Second generation UK punk bands.

“Second generation UK punk bands, yes. So it’s not no connection. And of course I think the whole idea of the DIY aesthetic and the relatively shocking lyrics and ideas that they purport also come from that tradition.”

Who else would you say inspired them?

“I think a long line of dissidents. They say this in the trial. You know, Solzhenitsyn and a long list of people who have risked all to try to improve society, as far as they’re concerned.

“They come from a long line of art activism and philosophical activism and political activism. They’re definitely in a tradition, which they would acknowledge.”

Their song or their performance piece A Punk Prayer includes the words “rid us of Putin”. But could what they did have perhaps in a way strengthened Putin? In the same way that they say he uses the whole gay issue just to strengthen his own position more than anything else.

“He certainly does do that. He certainly is attempting to appeal to the far right and the nationalists and the conservatives. But I think that in the long term this whole prosecution of Pussy Riot demonstrates insecurity on his behalf.

“One wonders why he spent so much time and resources persecuting these young women. Obviously it’s an attempt to win favour among the more conservative elements in the country, but at the same time I think it demonstrates his own insecurity, which is very interesting.”

Your film draws a comparison with the show trials of the Stalin era. Isn’t that a little bit strong, given that people in the show trials were tortured and many were executed afterwards? In the case of Pussy Riot, they got a stiff sentence but they didn’t experience anything like that.

“On the one hand of course you’re right. We’re not comparing this to the excesses of Stalinism and the millions of people whose lives were destroyed by that.

“But at the same time, the use of the judiciary and the use of the trial to undermine your opponents is reminiscent of that. So there are parallels, but of course we’re not for a moment suggesting that Russia is living under the tyranny it once was.”

Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, photo: CTKMaria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, photo: CTK I had a lot of sympathy for Pussy Riot at the time of the trial. But part of me was thinking, the worse they’re treated the better it is for them – because it makes Putin look worse. Was there an element of that?

“I think it was definitely the case that they were prepared to go through this experience. And I think they found it very galling when they were given this amnesty right at the end – they’d served 95 percent of their sentence and then suddenly they get this magnanimous act from the leader.

“They were a bit miffed about that, because they’d already done all this time and they were prepared to take their punishment, whilst not confessing or admitting to any wrongdoing. So there is a degree of martyrdom involved in all of this of course.”

What’s happening with Pussy Riot now? I understand that they’ve split, or that two of the ones who were imprisoned have been kicked out?

“Well, in the tradition of all political groups and pop groups, even though they’re not a pop group, they have differences over what they think they should be doing in the future.

“I think that’s only natural and that it’s healthy as well. They’re not a monolithic structure that only exists in one particular way.

“Clearly one of the many interesting aspects of Pussy Riot was this anonymity – that nobody would be known for themselves. Now of course Masha, Nadya and Katya [Yekaterina Samutsevich] are very, very well known, so that does change the whole approach of the group, I would suggest.”

Do you think the remaining members will remain a part of the media landscape, or will appear in public and do outrageous things in future?

“I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that their job is not done yet. But who knows what guise it will take or what their technique will be.

“But clearly they are struggling to achieve greater justice for people and greater equality for men, women and gay people in Russia. That job continues. I’m certain they’re not about to retire?”

In a previous interview you said that Masha, who is the curly-haired one for people who know what they look like but maybe don’t know much about them, could become one day the president of Russia.

“I still very much think that and I think she would make a very good president. And it wouldn’t be the first time! We’re talking in this country where former dissidents have become presidents. So it’s not entirely impossible, and I certainly think it’d be a good thing for Russia if she did.”

What marks her out as being different from the others, or more likely to be a leader in future?

“They’re all capable of it. I just think she has a certain degree of seriousness about her, and an uncompromising morality that I think would serve a president very well.”

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