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Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot during at interview before the screening of documentary about Pussy Riot in Moscow at an art gallery. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot during at interview before the screening of documentary about Pussy Riot in Moscow at an art gallery. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

New doc reveals many facets of the Pussy Riot story Add to ...

“We sang a fun song in a church.” That was how Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina, on The Colbert Report last week, described the brief event that led to a sensational televised trial, prison terms and world fame for members of the formerly obscure group of Russian performance-art activists.

But there’s much more to the story of what Alyokhina and her friends did, why they were prosecuted, and how the Russian government allowed their case to blow up into an international cause célèbre. Filmmaker Maxim Pozdorovkin could hardly believe the density of the material that came his way as he was making Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, his documentary about a story that became “a perfect sandwich of politics, art, religion, feminism and generational struggles,” he said in an interview.

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Two years ago, several women involved in Pussy Riot entered Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, pulled on balaclavas, and performed a punk song critical of close ties between Vladimir Putin and the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Few people were in the church at the time, and guards quickly stopped the protest.

After three women were charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” however, a video of the performance went viral on YouTube. The case stirred a global wave of support that included statements of solidarity by Madonna, Bjork and Amnesty International.

“I think the whole story is misunderstood, in Russia and the West,” says Pozdorovkin, a Russian citizen who co-directed the film with British filmmaker Mike Lerner. “A lot of people in the West really thought Pussy Riot were just a punk band who were put in prison because they sang an anti-Putin song. In Russia, many people thought they were just these violent hooligans who hated religion and didn’t have much of a social position at all.”

As the film shows, members of Pussy Riot had already participated in provocative actions by a street-art group called Voina, including an act of mass fornication in a biology museum in 2008 that was meant to satirize presidential candidate Dmitry Medvedev’s suggestion that Russians should have more babies. That event passed without legal consequence.

Pussy Riot’s cathedral performance drew prosecution because it looked like a new affront to believers whose religion had been suppressed in the old Soviet Union. The cathedral in which Pussy Riot performed was a rebuilt version of one that Stalin demolished in 1931. Legal action against those involved in the latest “sacrilege,” as believers call it in the film, had plenty of public support.

The trial was filmed for television, Pozdorovkin says, because the three defendants – Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich filed a successful motion to have cameras present. The women’s defiant, manifesto-like responses to the charges were filmed, and seen around the world. The courtroom became their theatre. Pozdorovkin thinks the Russian government may have imagined that they would apologize and demean themselves before the nation, just like the defendants at show trials of the 1930s.

Pozdorovkin asked to license the TV footage, and while he was screening the rushes, discovered that the cameras had begun rolling hours before the start of each day’s proceedings and had caught all kinds of informal exchanges between the defendants, their lawyers, and the paparazzi who swarmed the scene.

“The moment when the women are sitting there being photographed and speaking among themselves, with a shotgun mike above them, was an incredible window into their experience,” Pozdorovkin says, “because for five months before the trial, they were held on different floors and could only communicate through their lawyers.” He also managed to get revealing interviews with family members, prosecutors, and scary-comical Orthodox activists who look like bikers and who think that instead of getting jail time, “the women should be deported to Amsterdam.”

The tale’s unforeseen twists culminate in a moment in the film when the women seem finally to realize that their unintended alienation of ordinary believers – to whom they do apologize – has obscured their political aim, at least in Russia. Their ideological clarity and media savvy, it turns out, were mixed with naïveté.

“I’m of the same generation, and support a lot of what Pussy Riot does and stands for,” says Pozdorovkin, “but I think it’s important to present certain arguments against them. For example, one of the prosecution lawyers in the film says that what they did, and the whole movement around them, is a blow to liberals, because it turned off moderates who saw that as going too far.

“Ultimately what the film is about is the radicalization of society on the right and on the left,” he says. “This was the moment when a lot of the religious fundamentalists came out and asserted themselves more vocally than they had ever done before.”

The latest of Pozdorovkin’s three attempts to show the film in Russia was recently thwarted at the last minute, when “it was banned by the Moscow equivalent of the Ministry of Culture,” he says. “It was stupid, because there’s nothing in the film that people in Russia don’t know.”

Meanwhile, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova, freed from prison, are touring the talk shows, trading quips with Stephen Colbert, and campaigning for the rights of prisoners and LGBT people in Russia and elsewhere. Full props to the Russian government for giving them such a high platform.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer opens at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto on Friday.

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