Pussy Riot on screen at Gaze

Mike Lerner, the director of ‘Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer’, showing at the GAZE festival, says the art-punk group are an ‘incredible lightning bolt for young people’

 

In February 2012, Pussy Riot – a Russian art collective sporting DayGlo balaclavas – entered the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Their 40-second performance of a musical number that began with a Rachmaninov riff and climaxed with the chorus “Mother of God, Drive Putin Away” could easily have been witnessed only by a handful of worshippers. Instead, the group’s “punk prayer” against the increasingly incestuous melding of Church and State interests under President Putin became a shot heard around the world. At least five women took part in the demonstration, but only three – Nadia Tolokonnikova, Masha Alyokhina, and Katia Samutsevich – were arrested and charged with trespassing, wearing “inappropriate” (that is, sleeveless) dresses, and disrupting the social order.

The incident provides the spine of a new documentary from the Oscar-nominated filmmaker Mike Lerner and his Moscow-born, Brooklyn-based co-director, Maxim Pozdorovkin.

“I became interested in making a film about Pussy Riot as soon as I saw pictures of their Red Square action in January, 2012,” says Lerner. “I’ve spent my life making films about art and politics and these two subjects dovetail very neatly with Pussy Riot. I was immediately struck by what a bunch of incredible people they were and that they were articulating the spirit of that moment – that moment of Putin’s return to power – when there seemed to be an igniting of the opposition in Russia. Once they got arrested, the film became a definite process. We got in touch with their family and friends and lawyers and just went out to Moscow and started working.”

The finished film, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, attempts to unravel the ghoulish and misogynistic influences that seek to silence all voices of dissent in Russia. Last spring, Patriarch Kirill I, the current pope of the Russian Orthodox Church and a Putin appointee, led the charge against Pussy Riot. His efforts, which ended with penal sentences for three of the feminist protesters, might have been stopped by the sitting president at any time.

“It’s an interesting aspect of the story because the protest itself was a protest about the close relationship between church and state,” notes Lerner. “Putin wasn’t driving the case but it’s true that he could have intervened and ended it at any time. Kirill was a Putin appointee and at the time of his appointment people were quite surprised that he had won out over the other contenders for pope. He was mired – at the time of the Pussy Riot protest – in a number of controversies. He was photographed wearing a very expensive watch and he denied ever having the watch and published the same photograph without the watch. Unfortunately the watch was still reflected in the table. So this story was lucky for him. It overrode and distracted from all the various controversies around him. He definitely drove the action for propagandist reasons and Putin jumped on board and honoured his commitment to him. After a while it suited Putin as well to be seen to be going after these uncaring, religion-hating women.”

Last week, following the handing down of a similarly harsh five-year sentence to anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev confirmed what many commentators already knew, that Russia “does not have independent courts.”

“It shows how much further Russia has sunk in the period since Pussy Riot were jailed,” says Lerner. “What seemed like a hopeful moment of opposition a year ago has faded. We’re all really upset about the continuing clampdown and abuse of power that Putin represents. Politics depend on political leaders. And in Russia – as with Egypt – there’s nobody left to represent the liberal point of view. The second biggest party in Russia is the Communist Party. The religious vote is 40 per cent. Where are the less conservative voices? They’re not being represented.”

Unhappily, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer suggests that too many Russians are willing to back the state’s continuing clampdown on anything that might be deemed transgressive. Former world chess champion Gary Kasparov, newshounds may recall, was arrested and beaten for attempting to attend the reading of the verdict at the Pussy Riot trial. In one of the film’s most disconcerting scenes we meet the Carriers of the Cross – a Russian Orthodox gang – who denounce Pussy Riot as “demons”. The “main one”, suggests one of the Cross’s amateur phrenologists: “She is a strong demon – you can tell by her lips, her mouth – she’ll fight.”

Did the filmmakers encounter this kind of antagonism when they were shooting in Moscow, I wonder? “They weren’t antagonistic,” says Lerner. “They were kind of confused. At that first bail hearing in the film there were maybe 120 journalists from all over Russia and I think we were the only foreign journalists there. So everyone was asking ‘what are you doing here?’ And I would say ‘well, I’m a British filmmaker and punk rock is a British phenomenon so I want to look at this continuation of the movement’. I was surprised to find that even quite liberal people thought that what Pussy Riot had done in the church was unacceptable. Historically, the church has been repressed in Russia so they felt that the church was an unreasonable target.”

Despite the women’s spirited and hyper-articulate defence in a very public trial, despite attempted interventions from world leaders and most of the planet’s rock music community, two of Pussy Riot’s members – Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova and Maria “Masha” Alekhina – continue to languish in jail. Whither Russian feminism?

As Mike Lerner points out, this isn’t just about Russia: “Freedom of speech and freedom of expression is under attack in all our societies in very depressing ways. Thousands of laws have been introduced eroding our freedoms. And, as Ireland knows too well, we’ve seen a big feminist backlash lately. Pussy Riot have shown us all how some inspiring figures have dealt head on with misogyny. They would call themselves feminist revolutionaries; revolutionary movements are always on the verge of collapse and are always subject to setbacks. The jailing of Pussy Riot is a setback but in the long term they have won. They have provided an incredible lightning bolt for any young person anywhere in the world who feels things are not as they should be. Before Pussy Riot nobody discussed feminist and gay rights in Russia. Now, even if they disagree with everything they say, there has to be debate. Things will never be the same after Pussy Riot.”


Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is playing as part of GAZE International LGBT Film Festival, August 1-5 at the Light House Cinema, Dublin 7 and at QFT, Belfast from today


SEVEN MORE TO SEE AT GAZE

VALENTINE ROAD
Marta Cunningham’s wrenching documentary recounts the messy emotional knot and messier legal aftermath of a teenage hate crime. In 2008, a 14-year-old Pokémon collector shot dead his gay classmate at point blank range. As maddening as it is heart-breaking, this stirring plea for tolerance is seldom an easy watch.

MY BEST DAY
Erin Greenwell’s frantic indie farce kicks off on the 4th of July, when a routine call about a broken refrigerator sends Karen out in search of her gay biological father and her long- lost, gambling-addicted sister. We love the rural Pennsylvania backdrop, the junk orchestra score and the criss-crossing oddball romances underpinning the craziness.

DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS
Austrian director Richard Oswalt’s seminal 1919 melodrama about a violinist facing blackmail and prejudice is frequently credited as the movieverse’s first sympathetic representation of gay men. A protest against the new Weimar Republic’s anti-homosexual laws, the film’s doctor soon informs us that “it is not even an illness, merely a variation, and one that is common to all of nature”. This restored version is presented in co-operation with the Goethe-Institut Irland.

VIC + FLO SAW A BEAR
Vic has left behind a prison sentence for a life in rural Canada with an incapacitated uncle and her on- again, off-again bi-sexual lover. The women are visited by Vic’s earnest parole officer, their resentful neighbour and a mysterious woman with gardening tips. Denis Côté’s allegorical drama is full of surprises: we don’t even get the titular bear.


SHE SAID BOOM: THE STORY
OF FIFTH COLUMN
Kevin Hegge’s fascinating doc gathers together some beloved cultural commentators – including Vivienne Dick, Bruce La Bruce and Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna – to talk us through the history of Toronto’s queercore scene and the towering art punk shadow left by proto Riot Grrls Fifth Column.

THE COMEDIAN
Edward Hogg stars in Tom Shkolnik’s Dogme-style drama about a wannabe stand-up bouncing between a call-centre day job, a romance with a painter, a friendship with a foreign singer-songwriter, and the general chaos of London life. Aesthetically, the Israeli-born director’s low-budget first feature recalls Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, but The Comedian resolutely refuses to conform to neat narrative movements.

WONDER WOMEN! THE
UNTOLD STORY OF AMERICAN SUPERHEROINES

Aimed at a broader church than the geek girls who worship at the altars of She-Hulk and Electra, Kristy Guevara-Flanagan gathers together an impressive gaggle of talking heads to ponder Wonder Woman’s decline from TV ratings winner to DC Comic’s most famous also-ran. That’s why you’re getting Dark Knight vs Superman instead of Justice League, kids.

Gaze runs August 1st to 5th at the Light House Cinema, Dublin. gaze.ie

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