‘Punk Prayer’ documents Russian band’s plight
Ryan Summerlin January 18, 2013
When Vladimir Putin was once more named the Russian president after a controversial election, citizens throughout the county protested.
But it was the feminist punk rock group, Pussy Riot, that caused he most outrage.
The five band members, including its three-women core – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich – performed a concert on the soleas, an extension of the sanctuary platform, of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior to protest the alleged connection between Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church.
The show was taped and turned into a video called "Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away."
Shortly afterwards, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina and Samutsevich, were sentenced to two years in prison for hooliganism fueled by religious hatred.
Samutsevich has since been freed on probation, but the other two remain incarcerated.
While Russia viewed the incident as a religious one, the United States considered it a political issue.
That’s what attracted filmmakers Maxim Pozdorovkin and Mike Learner to make a documentary, "Pussy Riot – a Punk Prayer." The film has been selected for the Sundance Film Festival’s World Documentary Competition.
Pozdorovkin said one of the things that intrigued him was how the band’s story was presented in the media.
"There was such an outrage in Russia over what happened from the religious communities, while in the West it was presented as a political story," Pozdorovkin said during a telephone call from New York City. "In reality, it was just the perfect storm of factors – historical, political and artistic – that came together."
Pozdorovkin, who grew up in Russia under Soviet rule, said he related to the women.
"I share a path with the characters," he said. "We are about the same age and grew up in similar times, listened to the same records and were interested in the same political performance art. "And, I am a fan of Russian avant-garde art, which the girls do."
Another aspect of the story that Pozdorovkin recognized was feminism, and found himself involved in dinner conversations with his family about how feminism would be beneficial to Russia.
After talking to the band members’ parents, he discovered they had similar discussions.
"There is historical significance of feminism in Russia," Pozdorovkin explained. "There was a huge wave of it in the beginning of the 20th century, and the Soviet Union, other than Australia, became the first place where women could vote and get divorces."
However, Russia never experienced a second wave of feminism like the United States did in the 1960s and 1970s.
"In addition, there was no punk culture or performance-art culture in Russia either," he said. "So, the band’s story was a more rich and interesting story than people realized."
Lerner was also fascinated by the significance of what the performance did.
"Obviously, the issues – religious and political – are two sides of the same coin," Lerner said. "The relationship between the church and the state and the relationship of politics and religion are so close together."
So, when Russian’s patriarch called together more than 100,000 people to protest what Pussy Riot had done, the government acted.
"Religion had been repressed for so many years during the Soviet system and politicized itself, so in the new political landscape, religion is struggling to assert its identity," Lerner said. "Obviously, the response was enormous, and that said a lot about the sense of insecurity amongst the religious, even after all these years. That’s why they felt threatened by what Pussy Riot did."
Throughout the filmmaking, Lerner said he tried to understand the Russian legal system, but is still in the dark.
"The system is a big and surreal," he said. "I mean they still put people in cages and, and we’ve noticed that 99 percent of the people who go to court are found guilty of the things that they are accused of."
Lerner also said the Sundance Film Festival is the perfect place to premiere a film such as "Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer."
"I have had the good fortune to have two other films open at Sundance, so I know a little bit about what to expect," he said. "To have this film at Sundance, which is the most incredible platform available to release a film, is so important to us. All the eyes and ears of the world are here and there is an incredible buzz of excitement about the whole thing."
In the meantime, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are serving out their prison sentences, he said.
Sundance Film Festival will screen the World Documentary Competition film "Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer" on Saturday, Jan. 19, at the Broadway Centre Cinema 3 in Salt Lake City at 6:45 p.m.; Sunday, Jan. 20, at the Redstone Cinema 2, at 1 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 23, at the Temple Theatre at 9 a.m. and Thursday, Jan. 24, at the Egyptian Theatre, at 6 p.m. For more information, visit www.sundance.org/festival