Pussy Riot Is 'One of the Stories of the Decade,' Says Filmmaker

Documentary set to debut at Sundance this month

Pussy Riot, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova
NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/GettyImages
Members of the all-girl punk band Pussy Riot (L-R) Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova sit in a glass-walled cage in a court in Moscow, on October 10, 2012.
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"It's one of the stories of the decade," says British filmmaker Mike Lerner, speaking about the chilling saga behind his forthcoming documentary, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, which premieres later this month at the Sundance Film Festival. The film is a tension-laden account of last year's infamous arrest, trial and imprisonment of three members of a Russian feminist punk rock collective stemming from their guerrilla performance of an anti-government protest anthem against Russian president Vladimir Putin at an Orthodox cathedral in Moscow.

The three women, Nadezhda "Nadya" Tolokonnikova, Maria "Masha" Alyokhina and Yekaterina "Katya" Samutsevich, were tried on charges of hooliganism – the state claimed they disrupted social order by protesting at a church. Following a much-publicized trial, one in which the women spoke eloquently of their country’s numerous inequalities, they were each sentenced to two years in prison.

Pussy Riot: Their Trial in Pictures

In time, celebrities including Madonna and Sting would speak out against the women’s plight. But as Lerner tells Rolling Stone, when he first joined forces on the film with co-director Maxim Pozdorovkin – the Russian-American was coincidentally in Moscow at the time of the women's' arrest – he was unsure if the tale would be anything more than a flash in the pan. On paper, three women outraged by their country's patriarchal society and taking to the pulpit with politically charged riot-girrl rock & roll sounds like an appealing saga. But did the story, Lerner wondered, have cinematic legs? 

"As filmmakers you think, 'Well, any day now this story could come to a conclusion. They could just let [the women] go, tell them not to do it again, and it would be quite a good story,'" Lerner recalls thinking. But such was hardly the case: the Pussy Riot trial went viral, capturing global headlines as the world bore witness to what Lerner can only describe as a modern-day "medieval witch-hunt. The women certainly would have been burned [at the stake] 500 years ago.

"It's feminism on trial," he adds, emphasizing that it was "[the women’s] ideology and their daring to oppose or protest against the church in any way" that posed the biggest threat to the Russian government.

The world may have been aghast at the trumped-up charges brought against the three outspoken women. But filming in Russia, Pozdorovkin encountered a much more divided society. "One of the strange things is that most Russians are against [Pussy Riot]," he explains. "There are people who wanted them to burn; there are Orthodox believers that are for them that say they should be forgiven. There's political activists of every sort. It really brought out all the radical elements in society around this issue."

Lerner views the film as a "classic courtroom drama." In an ironic move, the state allowed cameras to capture and even livestream the entire trial. But featuring a slew of interviews with, among others, the women's parents (some of whom were not pleased with their daughters' actions), the film becomes something much larger. "Our attempt is to show this battle of ideology on the ground," Pozdorovkin says. "There are two Russias that are fighting each other."

Both filmmakers hope the film will serve as a living document of how three women, despite being  imprisoned for their actions, prevailed as moral victors. "They've won their argument in many ways," Lerner says. "They would consider themselves as professional artists who have done a good job. They are responsible for the most famous piece of avant-garde protest art ever, probably." (Samutsevich, the only one of the three women to be released on appeal, told Rolling Stone in October that, in retrospect, she believes Pussy Riot’s performance was successful.)

"It's the sort of thing that would happen in Iran or China," Lerner says. "I believe in the long term it's a huge mistake for [Putin]. Internationally and domestically, people have had their eyes opened to the pettiness of his control and the simple mean-spiritedness of it."

Lerner now finds himself inspired by the proactive spirit exemplified by groups like Pussy Riot. "In the context of Anonymous and Occupy, we are looking at a new age of dissent," he concludes. "I find it amazingly encouraging this generation is so active and aware all over the world."

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