'Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer' screened at Sundance

“I hope you like loud music and leftist politics.” — Maxim Pozdorovkin, introducing the film to its last Sundance audience

PARK CITY, Utah Just as the three infamous women known as Pussy Riot stormed the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow to the shock of churchgoers, this film was a surprise favorite at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, enjoying sold-out screenings and an early bid from HBO for television distribution rights.

This documentary is a cocktail of issues — religion, art, politics and freedom of expression, just to name a few. It gives a glimpse inside of Russian society and justice as an entire nation, and then the world, is captivated by a spectacle that took just 40 seconds to perform. At Saturday night’s awards ceremony at Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, the film was honored with a Special Jury Award for “Punk Spirit,” the first prize of its kind in the Festival’s history.

The movie, which leans heavily on state television archival footage of the Pussy Riot trial, shows that the most problematic aspect of their performance on February 21, 2012 in the Moscow cathedral was that nobody there understood what the artists were doing. It appeared to be desecration. At trial, the members of the group express remorse for offending true believers — but that didn’t spare them hard time in the penal colony.

The film, purchased by HBO for U.S. television distribution rights, features interviews with the parents of the three women who chose perhaps the most sensitive and political setting in Russia to express their beliefs through art. Rehearsal footage and public reactions outside the courthouse and at a prayer rally held by members of the Russian Orthodox against the women give a glimpse into popular opinion about the matter.

At the end of the film, one of the three jailed members of the group, Katia (full name Ekaterina Samutsevich), is released early from her sentence by the efforts of a new lawyer. She participated with the audience of the Sundance premiere via Skype.

Maxim Pozdorovkin, interviewed below, shares the film’s directing credits with Mike Lerner.

You moved to the United States around age 11. Do you identify as Russian, American, neither or both?

I guess I am a mutt. I mean I’m Russian — I’m a Russian citizen — and I’ve been here obviously for a long time. But a lot of the work that I do is about Russia and the history of art, the history of film, and I’ve written a lot about that stuff. I’m assimilated to a certain extent. But I’m always suffering from a Groucho Marx syndrome. It’s a mildly schizophrenic way of being.

What stereotypes do you encounter in America about contemporary Russian life?

There’s still a lot of Cold War backwater and baggage and I think people tend to think of Russia as a great deal more repressive than it actually is. I mean, I have tons of problems with the [Russian] government, but there’s a kind of double standard in America in general with the rest of the world. Every single night you’ll get questions like, is it safe for you to go back? But honestly, I find working in Russia much easier in many ways than working here.


People tend to deal on a more human level than here. Like when I was doing my doctorate, I used a lot of old material so I was spending time in the archives. A lot of people from here tend to complain about working in the Russian archives, but these are the same people who go in there with a kind of customer service mentality, so of course people will be very rude in response. But if you’re nice about it, and you bring them a bag of coffee or chat to them about their kids, they’ll be so nice to you and really go out of their way to help you.

The film will be screened across this country on people’s TVs via the HBO release. What other goals do you have for the film?

One of the things that’s important in the film is to show how new a lot of these ideas are in Russia. As one of the lawyers says, punk never really existed there. Here we’ve kind of been through it. In addition to the HBO screening, I hope there will be some kind of theatrical release. What we submitted to Sundance was a 93-minute cut done in three days, so we’ll probably edit for another month or two.

Do you think because of Pussy Riot’s impact there will be a widening of the space for conceptual art or rather, a chilling effect?

I don’t know ... I think there’s a part of the art world that kind of refuses to recognize them as art. It’s really easy to see them as band, because they play music, but their ideas are much more that of performance art. They’re not really musicians. The reason people say they’re not art is because they write kind of sloppy punk songs, but that’s not really the point.

Did you have any identification with feminist politics before the making of this film?

Yeah, yeah, that’s why I was drawn to making this film. We share a lot of the same politics and I’m also really into the Russian avant-garde and its lineage, and that’s ultimately what the girls come out of. I grew up playing in punk rock bands and listening to a lot of the same records, and I believe that feminism is something very needed for Russia. What people don’t realize is that they are real radicals: anti-capitalists, anti-bourgeois, hard-line feminists. For anyone of the leftist persuasion, it’s a dream to make a film about people who are like you. Everyone loves Pussy Riot. — Natalia Ciolko