Documentary: Inside Pussy Riot's Protest

A new documentary uncovers punk movement and its assault on Russian rulers.

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HBO's " Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer" is one of the films on the Academy Awards' shortlist for best documentary.

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Punk fans might have mourned the end of their anti-establishment movement when Anna Wintour and the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute embraced the genre last month. But its spirit of rebellion, anger and loud guitars is alive and well in a new film about a punk performance on the other side of the world last year, when the Russian protest group Pussy Riot women took to Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior to sing lyrics bashing the Church's sexism and its ties to the Putin government.

Though the February 2012 performance lasted only about 40 seconds before the all-women band was stopped, the group made a musical video of it called "Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!" that has since seen over a million views on YouTube. Three of the performers – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich – were apprehended and sentenced to two years in jail (Samutsevich has since been released early) under charges of hooliganism in a trial that made international headlines. Pussy Riot's infamy made it all the way to Madonna's backside, where she bared its name in support of the band's cause. Now it is the subject of a documentary "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer," directed by Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin.

[READ: Pussy Riot Receives Worldwide Attention After Prison Sentence]

"Punk never really existed in Russia, it never had this sort of moment of '77 and I think that attitude of provocation is why it was successful," Pozdorovkin, who grew up in Moscow, says.

Lerner, a British filmmaker, adds, "They thought it would be the most useful aesthetic to employ in order to wake people up. It is deliberately shocking, it is particularly vulgar, and that's entirely the whole point of it."

Lerner and Pozdorovkin were interested in Pussy Riot's story when they first saw images of the band's earlier Red Square protests. Traveling to Russia last March, they were able to embed with other members of the Pussy Riot movement, talk to the women's families and watch closely the trial that caused a global stir.

"It's a story about punk rock – what's not to like?" Lerner says.

"A Punk Prayer" looks not only at the personal back-stories of the three women charged for the performance, but into the circumstances that led to its becoming an international story.

 

"Much of the controversy was stirred up by the Church itself," says Lerner, before Pozdorovkin interjects, "...and then it was picked up by the federal channels where you see in the film they were vilified in many ways. There was this general kind of mass movement starting from the fundamentalist community."

The film suggests that, once the women were put on trial, the State overreacted to the case; and their harsh punishment reflects the government's too cozy relationship with the Church, as well as its fear of oppositional movements.

"What it shows is the degree to which Putin owes the Orthodox Church for political and even financial support," Lerner says. "The Church was calling in its favor in a way, and Putin really went along with it."

"Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer," though for the most part fawning over Pussy Riot and its cause, gives some of the historical context that made the band's cathedral performance so inflammatory. The film turns to Orthodox clerics – some of them looking more like a motorcycle gang in T-shirts that say "Orthodoxy or Death" – who relate Pussy Riot to the Communists who led anti-religious persecution in the first part of 20th century. The Cathedral of Christ the Savior was torn down by the Bolsheviks in 1931 and turned into a swimming pool until it was rebuilt 2000.

[ALSO: Pussy Riot Member Hospitalized After Hunger Strike]

Even before the Pussy Riot performance, the cathedral was a controversial symbol of an over-politicized and over-commercialized Church, the filmmakers say, insisting the performance was not the affront to religion it was made out to be.

"In a way Pussy Riot are pro-Church, but an apolitical Church and a Church that is about faith and not about politics," Lerner says. The filmmakers acknowledge that much of Russia still doesn't see it that way, with a poll last year finding that 53 percent of Russians still found their punishment to be "fair."