Predicting a riot

Mike Lerner talks about his new documentary on Pussy Riot.

by Jennie Kermode

Last year, the arrest of three members of a Russian punk band – or art collective, depending on how you look at it – made headlines around the world. Documentary maker Mike Lerner had heard about the band through the British press and the news of their detention inspired him to travel to Moscow. Theirs was a fascinating story, he though, but it would probably be a short one. At any moment the Russian authorities would see how disproportionate their actions were and drop the case. To his surprise, that didn't happen, and he found himself recording the story of a trial with considerable cultural significance.

Pussy Riot in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
Pussy Riot in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

That story – embellished with insights from the band's family members, friends and opponents – has now been released as Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. We at Eye For Film were pleased to have the chance to speak to Mike and ask how it happened.

“I ended up being there all summer, through the trial and right up to the appeal,” he says. “It all happened pretty quickly. Usually courtroom dramas take years to unravel. Pussy Riot's legal team and their family and friends were all pretty accessible. There's a large Pussy Riot support network. They were always into the film being made and I think they appreciated a foreign perspective because there's been a huge amount of media attention paid to the case in Russia and it's mostly been negative.”

He adds quickly that, though he's firmly on Pussy Riot's side, he doesn't intend his film to be propaganda for them and he tried to put both sides of the story. I ask how much of challenge he found that because, on viewing the film, one can't help but note how many of the band's opponents inadvertently make their case for them because their views are so extreme.

“In a way those religious people are relatively extreme voices,” he acknowledges, “but the majority of people in Russia do support what happened and feel that a prison sentence was deserved. To a large extent, the whole thing was driven by the Orthodox Church. Putin went along with it and didn't do anything to stop it but it was really about the Church. At the beginning there was also a large number of liberal, secular people who felt they'd gone too far because the Orthodox Church has been the victim of some pretty horrible persecution and oppression over the years. They interpreted it as an anti-religious act.”

He's referring, specifically, to Pussy Riot's performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, where they rushed up to the altar, upsetting many worshippers. The band, he says, saw this not as anti-religious but as a way of questioning the relationship between Church and state and the role of women in the Church. “They weren't attacking it so much as asking that it be reformed. Pussy Riot are really ver pro-Russian, patriotic people who want to improve conditions in their country and provoke a more tolerant, democratic movement. In the last year or so the Putin regime has introduced some highly undemocratic laws against women's rights, gay rights and the right to protest. There's even the new law on blasphemy that they're calling the Pussy Riot law.”

I note that the film's UK release is quite timely given Pussy Riot's interest in gay rights and freedom of speech. Putin has just passed a law making it illegal to 'promote' homosexuality.

“Unfortunately the timeliness of it is quite long lasting,” says Mike. “Even since their imprisonment, further pernicious, anti-democratic laws have been passed. Their release is likely to be next spring and they'll have plenty to keep them busy then.”

Although he has produced several films, this is Mike's first as a director, and it's a difficult task for anyone to make a film about people who are locked away, unable to participate directly. I ask if the band have even had the chance to see it.

“Katya has,” he says. “Katya worked quite closely with us on the film after her release. The other two haven't had the chance so we're just hoping they like it. It would be great to do a follow up film with them looking at what happens after their release.”

In general, he notes, the challenges were the same as they always are. It was a fast-moving story and he had no idea how it would develop. They were also under pressure to assemble the final cut quickly, as they finished filming in mid October and were invited to premiere the film at Sundance in January.

Mike's foremost area of expertise is in making films about artists and art movements. I ask if he sees Pussy Riot in this light.

“Absolutely!” he says. “That's what drew me to them. Pussy Riot are not a band, they're performance artists posing as a band and using that do do their actions.”

Dancing on the rooftops.
Dancing on the rooftops.

He acknowledges that questions of art, culture and history complicated the film. Alongside the story of Pussy Riot themselves he had to provide enough information about Russia to put events in their proper perspective. He hopes he's succeeded and that the film will help UK audiences better understand the backstory to what happened as well as feeling inspired to take action, but he also hopes to get the film shown in Russia itself.

“I think it would be good for Russians to get the alternative viewpoint, to see that Pussy Riot are not a foreign-backed conspiracy out to destroy society. There have been a number of TV shows saying how evil they are and that sort of thing. It would be good to be able to cut beyond that propaganda. We're hoping to show the film at the Moscow Film Festival in December.”

In the meantime, Mike has other projects on the go. “There's Smash And Grab, about the world's most successful diamond thieves, that's out at the moment, then there's A Whole Lot More, which is about a factory in America that employs disabled people and how it's threatened with being closed down and there's a campaign to try and save it.”

He's also planning a film about scandal in the Bolshoi Theatre that will take him back to Moscow. Given the controversy surrounding Pussy Riot, what kind of reception is he expecting there?

He laughs. “I hope they let us back in!”

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