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Interview with Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

HBO

How and when did you get involved in the story?

Mike Lerner

I started in February of last year when pictures of Pussy Riot started to appear in the London press, just before the cathedral event. I've spent my life making films about the place where art and politics meet and immediately was alerted to the potential for this story. Once they had been arrested, I knew for certain we should be making a film with these guys.

Max Pozdorovkin

I grew up in Moscow and spent a lot of time there for work. I was always interested in them and Voina, the other performance group they were in, and their politics and the art. I was attending the trial and thought it was one of the most fascinating things I've ever seen. Once we found out a lot of the trial had been filmed by RIA, the Russian news agency, we made inroads in getting the material. We realized that the cameramen began rolling before the trial began, when the women were sitting in separate cells and speaking to each other. It was such an incredible window, we wanted to base as much of the film on that as possible.

HBO

Was it the cathedral setting or that they were women that touched a nerve?

Max Pozdorovkin

For the people inside the cathedral, the biggest offense was that they went near the altar. They trespassed where no one, except the patriarch, is allowed to go.

Mike Lerner

That was their aim, to provoke a reaction. And part of their offense was not only being on the altar, but with bare arms and exposed flesh.

HBO

How did you get their families to participate in the documentary?

Mike Lerner

Masha's mother was very reluctant because she had been hounded by the press in a number of negative pieces about them. Nadia's father has been very vocal and open. The other two parents are very unused to being in the public eye. They really wanted to keep a low profile.

Max Pozdorovkin

What's so rich about the parents is how their own transformations, especially Katia's dad and Masha's mom, say so much about the story. They weren't really happy that their daughters did what they did, but seeing how the system overacted, they understood the point of their daughters were making.

Katia's father, even before he knew about the film, said to me in the courtroom, "There are two Russias here and both sides hate one another. They refuse to speak to and understand one another." There was a great deal of truth in that sentiment. We really started to think about the film around this idea.

HBO

How did the trial play in Russia?

Max Pozdorovkin

It was a huge soap opera and there were protests outside of the courtroom, people both for and against them. It was like a miniature of the whole thing. Most Russians still do not like them and believed they should have been punished. But the consensus is slipping; people now believe the punishment was too harsh.

HBO

So in Russia, are all defendants caged during proceedings?

Mike Lerner

It does seem so incredibly medieval, three women in an iron cage. But they weren't getting special treatment. That is what happens in a Russian court. For us, it seemed like the perfect metaphor for martyrdom.

Max Pozdorovkin

It ties into the idea of a public spanking. Public disgrace is significant for the film. In formerly Communist countries, the court system is used to perform these public punishments. That's why we use the show trial materials from 1937. This punitive mentality is still there and repellant; the cages, the aquarium, are testament to that. The only special treatment they got were vicious dogs to lead them in. Not all prisoners get the dogs.

Mike Lerner

Only gangsters and terrorists.

HBO

Did Pussy Riot ever expect to become an international story?

Max Pozdorovkin

They had no idea. But they're media performance artists and they measure success by the degree of provocation. They probably couldn't believe they could cause so much.

HBO

How do Nadia and Masha feel about Katia being out while they're still serving sentences?

Max Pozdorovkin

Katia has worked tirelessly on filing appeals on all sorts of levels. Both for the original trial, based on improper process, as well helping with the appeals for early release of the women. In a guerilla group, there's no benefit to have everyone behind bars.

HBO

Since the appeals continue, will you be making updates to the documentary?

Max Pozdorovkin

I think if something extraordinary happened, that would be cause to go back. But the story is about what these women do in court during the trial.

HBO

The film opens with a Brecht quote about the transformative power of art. What do you hope to achieve by telling this story?

Mike Lerner

Exactly that. How sometimes, art can do what nothing else can do. It transforms consciousness. The lasting legacy of Pussy Riot has yet to be determined, but we both think it's quite enormous. Although Putin is not about to be deposed, they have created something in the subconscious, certainly with the younger generation. And internationally, their influence is enormous.

Max Pozdorovkin

I want people to be in awe of the fact that these people dared to believe that art can make such a difference. They saw it in a non-decorative way and wanted to bring political meaning and revolutionary meaning to it. And after doing that, they had the courage to stand by their convictions. Because rather than getting on knees and begging for forgiveness, they took advantage of the stage for the purposes of standing up for their beliefs and articulating them.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

Docs Summer Series 2013