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'Pussy Riot — A Punk Prayer' rips a story from the headlines and fights back

Published January 19, 2013 1:16 pm

Sundance Film Festival • Film illustrates Russia's punk movement while underscoring a young generation's universal story of protest.
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Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin come from different worlds.

Lerner is an Academy Award-nominated producer with 25 years' experience as a documentary filmmaker. His previous work includes "Afghan Star," which won the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, while his "Hell and Back Again" won the documentary Jury Prize at the 2011 Festival.

Pozdorovkin, a Russian native, is making his Sundance Film Festival directing debut.

The duo, who are friends, co-directed and co-produced "Pussy Riot — A Punk Prayer," a film screening in the World Cinema Documentary competition in the Sundance Film Festival. The story, ripped from the headlines, is a tale that captured the attention of all of Russia, as well as the rest of the world.

On Feb. 21, 2012, the punk group staged a performance in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior and sang "Mother Mary, Banish Putin!" before being stopped by church security officials. The musicians said their protest was directed at the Orthodox Church's support for Vladimir Putin. Three members of Pussy Riot were convicted of hooliganism, and each was sentenced to two years' imprisonment.

The two filmmakers, like many around the world, were shocked by the severe sentences. "I had heard about Pussy Riot before the cathedral performance and was awestruck by the bravado of their previous performances," Pozdorovkin said. "When I heard that they performed in the country's main cathedral, considered to be a holy site by believers, I knew that a major reaction would be forthcoming. That being said, I could not foresee that their 'Punk Prayer' would … lead to a jail sentence for the group's members."

When Lerner heard about the protest, he was intrigued. "I thought, 'Wow, who the hell are these people and what do they want?' " he said. "Then I learned of the cathedral action and their subsequent arrest, and I knew that this was going to be one of the most powerful and important stories of the decade."

Pozdorovkin was attracted to the story because he felt a personal connection to the young women in Pussy Riot. "One of the first things that drew me to the story of Pussy Riot was the sense of a shared past with the characters," he said. "We had lived through similar times, listened to the same loud records, read the same poets and philosophers. I have found myself at family dinner tables arguing that Russian society could benefit from a feminist upheaval. The parents of the three members of Pussy Riot recalled having similar arguments with their daughters."

The older Lerner was motivated to tell Pussy Riot's story through one of the most powerful weapons he knew: film. "Today we are so bombarded by news and snippets of information, I think a documentary is the only way to really understand the human realities behind massively important and complex events such as the situation with Russian democracy right now," he said. "What attracts me to stories [in my films]is how these important stories about global politics can be told in an intimate, human and perhaps even entertaining way."

Pozdorovkin considered the film a universal story about the younger generation making itself heard — through any means necessary.

Despite different filmmaking experiences, Lerner and Pozdorovkin decided to make the film together based on what they could each bring to the tale. "This seemed like the perfect story on which to collaborate, " Pozdorovkin said. "When I first met Mike, we got along immediately having similar taste in film, music and politics. It's hard to imagine a better foundation for a partnership."

Lerner thought Pozdorovkin's insider point of view would benefit the story. "Obviously, as a native Russian, he has a highly evolved sense of the complexities of the situation and I, as an outsider [who] tends to see the more universal aspects — and a combination of both of these positions I think gives a very balanced and accessible telling of what is a highly idiosyncratic tale."

After gaining extraordinary access to the members of Pussy Riot and their families and friends, the story became clear to the filmmakers. "The film offers a multifaceted view of Russia today," he said. "As was the case with the Occupy movement in the U.S., it shows the Russian government siding with the conservative elements of society ."

Lerner also underscored the parallels between Russia and his homeland. "Nadia, Masha and Katia are three of the most remarkable women I have ever encountered," he said. "I am convinced that they will play an important role in the development of democracy and freedom of expression in their country. Their influence on the film is to confirm how important their story is, not only for Russia but for the rest of the world, struggling as it is with the problems of freedom, gender equality and justice."

In some ways, the film tells a distinctly Russian story. "The members of Pussy Riot are intellectuals who see themselves as continuing a Russian artistic and cultural lineage," Pozdorovkin said. "Familiarity with this heritage no doubt enriches one's experience of the story."



Twitter: @davidburger —

'Pussy Riot — A Punk Prayer' (World Cinema Documentary)

Friday, Jan. 18, 8:30 p.m. • Prospector Square Theatre, 2175 Sidewinder Drive, Park City

Saturday, Jan. 19, 6:45 p.m. • Broadway Centre Cinema 3, 111 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City

Sunday, Jan. 20, 1 p.m. • Redstone Cinema 2, 6030 N. Market St., Park City

Wednesday, Jan. 23, 9 a.m. • Temple Theatre, Highway 224, Park City

Thursday, Jan. 24, 6 p.m. • Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St., Park City






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