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Co-director of the documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer chats about Vladimir Putin’s Russia and punk-rock

You’ve produced a lot of films but moved to the director’s chair (with Maxim Pozdorovkin) here. Why now?

I’ve always spent a lot of my time making films about art and politics and this was a film that combines those two things in a sublime way. I grew up in a London in tune to punk-rock, so to make a film about the revival of punk for political purposes became too much to resist. 

Two years in penal colonies seems an impossibly severe punishment to people outside of Russia...

The actual crime [they were charged with] of hooliganism goes back to the Communist days when it was the catch-all crime used for political ends, as it has [been used] here. Specifically they were charged with hooliganism with the intent to provoke religious hatred. 

Which was not the purpose of the performance in the Cathedral of Christ The Savior in Moscow...

It certainly was not. Pussy Riot would probably say they were pro-religious but campaigning for a more democratic and less sexist church, where women can participate in rituals on the same level as men. In Jerusalem there’s a new group of women campaigning to participate in the rituals at the Western Wall and they were granted the permission to do that. So in Judaism’s case women were seen as acceptable whereas the Orthodox Church is a long way off that.  

Has their message been lost?

It has been deliberately confused. The cathedral performance was about demonstrating the close relationship between Putin and the Orthodox Church, lobbying for a greater involvement of women in church services, and protesting the misogynistic and sexist nature of Russian society. It is a lot for non-Russian audiences to get their heads around. And the Russian public, too, who saw them as cynical, blasphemous anarchists. 

Has Western involvement through people such as Madonna and Yoko Ono helped or hindered their case?

It has been positive in terms of the Pussy Riot morale, to know they have international support. Has anything Madonna’s said had any effect on the state? I doubt it. Has it provoked them in to being more recalcitrant? I think not as well. They tend to ignore it.  

Yekaterina Samutsevich was released last December. Are there any prospects for the early release of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina?

I am not saying there’s no hope [but] they have already had a couple of appeals for early release turned down and for ridiculous reasons, like Nadia not participating in the prison beauty pageant – which is clearly something as a feminist she would not want to do. And for early release they’d have to admit their guilt, which they are not prepared to do. 


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Interview - Mike Lerner: The filmmaker on his new documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
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