A Hymn To Revolt And A Hymn To Martyrdom: Two Films On Pussy Riot

Issue 13 Volume 1 | July 2014 | “Occult, Magick, Evil and the Powers of Horror” Special
July 2, 2014
Issue 13 Volume 2 | November 2014 | “Occult, Magick, Evil and the Powers of Horror” Special
November 14, 2014
 By Giuliano Vivaldi
This version updated on: May 1, 2015
An exploration of two films on Pussy Riot
Pussy Riot were a loose feminist art actionist and punk group founded in 2011 composed of a small group of anonymous members and who staged ‘provocative’ small, unannounced punk gigs and art actions in public locations around Moscow. At least two members of the group had been involved in the ‘Voina’ art actionist group which had staged a series of symbolic and scandalous pranks and street protests, drawing considerable national and international attention (gaining even a national art award established by the Russian Ministry of Culture). Arguably, some of the style of this group influenced Pussy Riot. The collective Pussy Riot staged and recorded five songs/performances before their sixth – Mother of God-Drive Putin Away– gained it a degree of greater notoriety and scandal given that it was performed in Moscow’s main Cathedral (the Church of Christ the Saviour).  Shortly afterwards three members of the collective were arrested and put on trial.  In what seemed a clear show trial, the trio were sentenced to two years imprisonment.  An international campaign of solidarity began from the time of their arrest, and was to draw the support of people like Madonna and Paul McCartney.  In Russia opinion was divided, but many came out in protests and signed letters of solidarity with the group while others demonstrated their rejection of what they saw as blasphemous and immoral actions. In many ways Pussy Riot can be seen on drawing on Russian traditions of iurodivy (holy fools) as much as on feminist punk groups such as Bikini Kill.  Any attempt to separate them from the recent tradition of Russian art actionism exemplified by artists such as Alexander Brener and Anatoly Osmolovsky would also be mistaken.  Other influences include situationalism and one can see parallels between their performance in the Church of Christ the Saviour and the Notre Dame Affair in 1950- a subversive action performed in Paris by radical members of the Lettrists.  The necessarily conspirational nature of their actions meant that often the main available footage of their performances was that filmed by members of the group themselves, in this case by the Gogol Wives Collective.  Since the release of the last two Pussy Riot members they have decided to concentrate more on human rights work forming an organization supporting prisoner rights called Zona Prava (or Zone of Rights). Some, like Anatoly Osmolovsky, have questioned this movement from art actionism to political engagement whereas others like Petr Pavlensky (famously nailing his scrotum to the paving stones in Red Square) still work mainly in the domain of art actionism.
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Maxim Pozdorovkin, Mike Lerner, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (2013)

A revealing moment in a discussion about last December’s Art Doc Fest (one of the main documentary film festivals in Russia), the director and one of Russia’s well-known film directors, Vitaly Mansky, while lamenting that Russian documentary is no longer in tune with Russian social trends, stated that there was not a single Russian film on Pussy Riot.  At this point Victoria Belopolskaya (another influential figure in Russian documentary) stated ‘And what of the film awarded at IDFA’ (Amsterdam’s influential documentary film festival)- alluding to Pussy versus Putin. Mansky replied that it was an anonymous film made by members of the Pussy Riot collective and they were also awarded anonymously under the title of Gogol’s Wives.(1) End of story.  This film didn’t appear at the Art Doc Fest and neither did Michael Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s film Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (although at the Odessa Film Festival Michael Lerner had stated that it was going to).  As well as  censorship, it almost seemed as though a conspiracy of silence (or perhaps a conspiracy of indifference) had befallen these significant cinematic documents.      Public showings of these films in Russia still seem an unrealistic prospect even though it is a strange paradox that of the two, the far more radical film made by Gogol’s Wives has managed a single public projection at Marat Guelman’s gallery in the art complex of Vinzavod in the centre of Moscow to mark the opening of an exhibition of Lusine Djanyan’s political ‘direct action’ posters created during Nadia Tolokonnikova’s imprisonment in Mordovia calling for her release.(2) The story of the censorship of Lerner and Pozdorovkin’s film did eventually lead to one of those mini-scandals all too common in Russia that flare up and then disappear without trace.  This time the scandal erupted between between theatre and film director Kirill Serebrennikov and Moscow’s top cultural official, Sergei Kapkov.  After billing a showing at the prestigious new Gogol Centre which he runs, Serebrennikov received a letter from Kapkov telling him that his centre should not be used by people who ‘provoke society’ thus effectively censoring the event for it is after all a municipal institution.(3) Serebrennikov then published a furious statement on his Facebook page(4) denouncing the present state of things in the world of Russian culture:
Only recently I kept repeating in all my interviews, like a mantra: “There is no censorship in the theatre, no censorship in the theatre, in the theatre there is no…” Enough, fuck, there is censorship in the theater! Cynical, pointless, silly censorship.
Any freedom now, any desire to find meaning, any desire to speak – all of that disintegrates when confronted with the gloom and doom that have filled the space around us and which govern us.  We thought that somewhere – in a theatre, a trendy cafe, at home, at the computer – there was a little free air. It’s like when you climb up on an armoire during a flood looking to save yourself under the ceiling where there is still air. End of that! No more air! It’s the “the vast majority” that gets the air. It – this majority – gets the authority it chooses, authority then calls the shots so as to entertain and delight the majority.
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The nearest A Punk Prayer got to be shown to a Russian-speaking audience was at the Odessa Film Festival in July 2013  (a mainly Russian-speaking city in Ukraine) and a scheduled showing in Simferopol which, however, was cancelled because a violent group of neo-facsists started to attack the organisers and audience.(5) So while public showings of either film appear out of the question in Russia today, outside of Russia it is the Lerner and Pozdorovkin film which is better known – tipped at one point for an Oscar.(6) Gogol’s Wives’ Pussy versus Putin, on the other hand, has been shown at IDFA and a handful of mainly Scandinavian film festivals such as the Gothenburg festival as well as in the occasional cinema elsewhere- for example, in Pordenone in Italy.(7)
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In so many ways the films are polar opposites. In spite of the Brecht quote that introduces the Lerner and Pozdorovkin film(8) no hammer-like efforts are made by this film.  Extremely polished as a documentary it documents mainly through footage from Russian television and through its own interviews the way that ‘art can make a difference’.  It tries to fix ‘objective facts’ such as how Russian society has reacted to the story and how ‘religion plays’ in Russia but it has also individualised the stories of the imprisoned Pussy Riot trio.  It is certainly a well-executed film, with some rather beautiful shots of contemporary Moscow and, in general, packaged very well. It also, thankfully, avoids many possible pitfalls such as concentrating too much on the international campaign of rock and pop stars for the trio’s release (one is thankful looking back thinking of the over dramatic bathos that clung to much of this international campaign for the release of the Pussy Riot trio) but all the same it doesn’t particularly stray that far from how the story was generally reported in the western media.  The film also chooses a human interest angle individualising and personalising, although trying to add some more context as it does so.  Much of the film is taken up with interviews with the parents of the trio and we learn what appear to be the, for want of a better term, psycho-social motivations for the actions of the Pussy Rioters.  Yet we appear bound up in an all-too familiar narrative here.  It seems as though Lerner and Pozdorovkin arrived at the story simply too late just as the original situationalist ethos of revolt had lost its real sting as well as its real strength: the mask of anonymity.  As Maria Chehonadskih stated it was at this point when:
the faces and personal stories of the members of Pussy Riot [became] of central importance. A humanization of the victims on trial passed through a self-promoted media campaign, which made public their way of life (ascetic, selfless devotion), personal life (parents, babies, husbands) and other biographical details.(9)
Their anonymity, and their ability to use other than first person voices, had been broken (partly by the state but also partly through the international campaign and through the defence lawyers who had their own interest in transforming the trial into spectacle).  In so many ways it was the previous anonymity which had fostered the real radicality of their gestures and actions.  The personalization predominating in the story recounted by the directors of A Punk Prayer led to losing much of the story of the original and radical nature of the art project itself.  Some of the trial footage does hint at the trio’s irritated resistance to this transformation of their story- snatched conversations in court indicate their acknowledgement (mainly ironic) of the media-run spectacle of the trial.  Yet, in retrospect, their power as individual dissidents on trial (which they also chose as a strategy) was a retrogressive one never quite matching their potential transformation of the everyday cityscape as an anonymous group.  Citing Solzhenitsyn and Mandelshtam in their final statements, their lawyers ‘giving interviews and twitttering’, the trial pushed things back into the media sphere even while turning the court into theatre.  The streets would slowly be cleared to make way for carefully stage managed demonstrations of ‘popular anger’ at the blasphemous group by ‘the silent religious majority’ and all that could be offered to combat this was martyrology.  A Punk Prayer fits this martyrological narrative almost too well marginalizing the force of the Brechtian citation with which the film begins.
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Gogol’s Wives, Pussy Versus Putin (2013)

Pussy versus Putin appears, at first glance, a misnomer for Putin is nowhere to be found (unlike in A Punk Prayer). However, there are few better documents which have managed to record the signs, symbols and attitudes, the gestures and debris of Putinism than this film.  It deals (unintentionally,of course) a powerful blow to the perfected lakirovka of the rather polished Moscow scenes and the ‘BBC objectivity’ of the Lerner and Pozdorovkin film with a much more rough, unpolished, seemingly haphazard and subjective take.  Mansky, on the other hand, may well have been correct in his unease at seeing this as a documentary.  It is far too amorphous a film to call it that.  The film-makers don’t bear the marks (or the scars?) even of the Razbezhkina School of Documentary filmmaking (10).  Rather one feels more at home calling the film something like a guerilla chronicle – its very unevenness and the fact that the camera (or even mobile phone) is in the hands of a duo placing themselves at the centre of a historical moment before the moment was recognised (and subsequently turned into international media spectacle) gives this film a definite historical advantage between the two.  Its very subjectivity and the filmmakers’ status as participant observers ultimately gives it a cinematic advantage too. As in the Vertovian slogan, the film managed to capture life off guard in the right time and right place.  For all its unevenness and amorphous ‘unprofessionalism’ the camera lingers there shooting everything, however haphazardly and however awkwardly, in spaces and moments where few professional documentalists would ever likely to be present, thanks mainly to the fact that its practitioners were subjects as well as chroniclers of the events they record.  Gogol’s Wives have, in this regard, come closest in contemporary Russia to the aims of Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas in their programme for a Third Cinema (11). Discarding Hollywood formulas and art cinema because culture itself  “in an alienated world culture is a deformed and deforming product”, the project of Gogol’s Wives appears to try at least to give birth to a project of dealienation and revolt, reducing the separation between the camera and instrument of struggle to a minimum, just as Alexander Medvedkin had in mind (in his own way) inventing his cinematic gun in World War Two (12).
Pussy versus Putin clearly then is no ordinary documentary.  Post factum a chronicle of the group of Pussy Riot before, up to and after its most celebrated performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, it is also film as action and performance.  A series of film ‘performances’: at a TV show, at a feminist conference, preparing performances in fast food joints, political meetings and demonstrations, shots inside prison vans as well as inside prison cells (filmed from the subjective point of the detainee), shots of the trial, shots from the Madonna and Faith No More concerts in Moscow and most importantly, its direct filming of the very actions and performances of Pussy Riot themselves.  Much of the interest comes from the interaction between the group and the cityscape – are transformed by their performances.  We see something of the dialectic between disruption, dislocation of the everyday, and repression.  A dislocation and repression uncertain of themselves at first but then gathering apace until the orgy of arrests shown in the final cadres (filmed during the meeting outside the court at the time of the sentencing to the accompaniment of the latest Pussy Riot song).  One could see this process as an emphatic thread throughout the film.  Revealed in this film are the live reactions of the public and the authorities to Pussy Riot actions in a far more direct manner than the ‘objective’ and balanced documentary by Lerner and Pozdorovkin.  One discovers these reactions close up so that the viewer almost becomes a kind of bewildered participant foregoing the faux solomonic distance of A Punk Prayer.
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Gogol’s Wives, Pussy Versus Putin (2013)

A lack of any narrative commentary in the Gogol’s Wives’ film is also a decisive point in its favour (especially in comparison to the rather guided narrative of the Lerner and Pozdorvkin film).  While understandable that the latter film aimed this at a broad and sizeable international audience (who would be less aware of context) the narrative choices they do make need to be questioned.  Setting the religious aspects of the societal reaction against the historical backdrop of Soviet campaigns against religion, they neglect to mention the conflict between religious bodies and artists exisiting over the past decade since religious activists trashed an art exhibition in Moscow.  Punished by the state were the curators and artists themselves rather than those religious activists who simply destroyed the artworks.  (13) Pussy versus Putin, instead, is a film recording many separate, concrete situations in which larger realities are displayed through the public gestures of everyday life. Each performance recorded here reveals much more about the surrounding world than it does about the actionist artists themselves. The two actions devoted to the Liberate the Paving Stone action (on the trolleybus and in the Moscow metro) reveals how the disruption of everyday lived reality is met with fury, bewilderment, laughter, joy, violence and repression. The demonstration scenes reveal the arbitrary nature of police repression at an unsanctioned meeting and those ways it differs from police repression elsewhere (for example, in Russia the simple fact of being at a meeting is likely to lead to arrest and the levels of resistance to police aggression are likely to be lower or non-existent but the police don’t resort, for example, to the kettling techniques of the British police) giving one an idea of the genuine dynamic of an unsanctioned meeting in Russia and what it actually feels like to participate in one.  The faces and gestures of demonstrators and police alike and the arrival (in some cases) of provocateurs who occasionally torment or beat their opponents (in one scene the film-makers are themselves victims of an assault by religious activists) are also well documented.
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Maxim Pozdorovkin, Mike Lerner, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (2013)

Moscow and Russia represented in the two films again are at wide variance.  In the Lerner and Pozdorovkin one almost feels as if the film sometimes strays into showing images of a Moscow which wouldn’t look out of place in a tourism commercial for the city.  The film-makers seem intent to show Moscow the city at its best as well as its worst (maybe, justifiably, as a kind of contrapuntal backdrop to their tale of three martyrs).  It has only the rare hint of the everyday Moscow of MacDonalds, metro stations, police cells and prison yards highlighted in Pussy versus Putin.  Even when the Gogol’s Wives camera team lingers on the frescoes of Saint Basil, the stuccoed walls and ceilings are showing.  The visit to the pre-trial detention centre by Pyotr Verzilov is shown in both films: cursorily in A Punk Prayer, whereas Pussy versus Putin lingers on this visit foregrounding the desolate surroundings, the barking dogs and the grey prison buildings with barbed wire.  No dramatic sound track is used in the Pussy versus Putin film apart from the Pussy Riot tracks themselves, whereas Lerner and Pozdorovkin dramatise the interrogations with a choice of music dramatically underlining the martyrological aspect of their predicament.  Gogol’s Wives also manage to get behind the scenes of the solidarity actions in Russia itself , for example, by‘Faith No More’.  Yet what is filmed is not the finished product but the negotiations and tensions behind staging the subversive act of solidarity in the middle of the concert. We see the backstage negotiations with the less than informed and supportive local technical team, and during the concert, as well as the rather bewildered and even hostile reaction of many of the concert goers. In many ways surprising for filmmakers who identify themselves with the feminist punk group.
One also gains a good idea of how the ‘religious activists’ play their part in repression, and invaluable insights in the authoritarian mindset that many display.  Lerner and Pozdorovkin, at times, give a fairly sympathetic representation of some believers (or at least a hearing to them), whereas the Pussy versus Putin filmmakers are there not just recording the actions of the religious activists, but also find themselves on the receiving end of the latters’ aggressive fury.  Faces, gestures and actions are always of the essence in this film. Often even violent gestures abound throughout the film – and nowhere is this more palpable than in the beating that the film-makers receive during the ‘single picket’ action in support of Pussy Riot or in fixing the conversations between supporters and opponents of Pussy Riot in the police van and the intermittent verbal and physical aggression that the latter display. The long close ups on faces and the detail of a conversation in which racism is mixed with religion of those present at the ‘prayer meeting’ outside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour once again reveals through faces, gestures, words and actions a psychological typology of the religious reaction that Lerner and Pozdorovkin’s film fails to trace even though it does follow a group of khorugvenosets revealing something of the mentality of these religious radicals (but not so much their actions and unguarded beliefs).  Rather the close ups of faces at the prayer meeting and the chaotic scene of conflict and arrest by the Gogol Wives team display both the filmmakers omnipresence and courage in recording further significant details to this story.
Even the trial sequences in the two films are very different: Lerner and Pozdorovkin used footage from Russian television, whereas Gogol’s Wives used their own footage.  In spite of the Russian television usage the fine editing of A Punk Prayer, its carefully chosen compositions add emphasis to the heroic nature of the Pussy Riot trio decreed by the martyrological approach whereas this aspect is underplayed by the militant film-makers of Gogol’s Wives.  After all the heroism of the Pussy Riot trio is not the point of the film nor is their ‘martyrdom’.  These guerilla film-makers avoid (admittedly more through necessity than through choice) the final speeches of Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina and Samutsevich (speeches highlighted in the other film)- replacing them with the hand written message of Alyokhina ‘For our and your freedom’, the face of Samutsevich and the reaction of the crowd outside the court room.  The over-personalised emphasis on the imprisoned trio is, thus, once again absent in this militant film even during the trial scenes, whereas this is the main focus of the Lerner and Pozdorovkin film here.  Even the faces of Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are shown more occasionally in Pussy versus Putin, for example during their final disappearance into a police van, for it is still the collectivity of revolt that these film-makers highlight.  More central to their account of the sentence is the collective reaction of the crowd outside, the dawning shock on faces as the enormity of the two year sentences sink in.  The camera travels through the crowd- selecting people in the crowd hearing the actual sentence handed down and then highlighting their pensive, confused, bewildered, disconcerted, livid faces.  For example, we see a man talking into his mobile phone expressing his disblief and anger, furious at the ‘chekist scumbag’ (he has in mind Putin of course) who has allowed this to happen.  A moment later a voice is captured and the camera goes in search of this lone, loud voice of a short man unable to contain his fury in what is one of the most extraordinary moments in the film.  After the camera finds him having travelled through the crowd it fixes his individual reaction initially and him alone in a shocked crowd shouting “It’s an inquisition”, slowly the crowd takes up his slogan, chanting it louder and louder whereas the man becomes muted with a singular realization of how this historic moment has carved its own mark of despair and defeat upon his face (and his appreciation of his own fate).  The camera remains fixed to his face, zooming in one at one point, so that the man’s expression is dwelt on for some time. This sequence is then followed by a lyrical fusion of images of mass arrests and the new Pussy Riot song as the film bursts into a frenzied depiction of repression and resistance.  Silence, applause, cries of “freedom” and a barking dog with glimpses of the trio carted off to jail.  The prolonged cries for freedom grow into a crescendo with the prison van still motionless.  Finally as it starts on its journey the film revs up cutting to a succession of images of prison camps and barbed wire with the cries of “freedom” still resounding.  Pussy versus Putin concentrates on revolt and repression, ignoring hagiographical glorification, or martyrological pietas, it even ignores the issue of justification.  It is certainly a hymn to revolt but the revolt is presented as a lived one.  And yet all the same a revolt still yet to inflame the many rather than the few.
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Gogol’s Wives, Pussy Versus Putin (2013)

In many ways Pussy versus Putin could be a kind of trailblazer for a new underground trend in Russian film. After all underground film in Russia has been around and thriving since the eighties.(14) But Gogol’s Wives example may indicate not only an explicitly political path to film (there have indeed been a spate of political documentaries in recent years) but also a partisan one, mirroring the actionist-like message of its subject.  A partisan guerilla film-making which, unlike many other trends in documentary, manages to capture a significant moment in history and capturing it when un- or semi-conscious of its real significance, capturing it unawares in that old Vertovian phrase. Arguably its closest relative in Russian documentary, at present, is the fine Realnost project(15) led by Rastorguev and Kostomarov. In many ways with these projects the stories dictate the forms, more than the other way round. A new chronicle of revolt with film maker as subject (rather than mere observer) fixing each moment of the Spectacle overturned (momentarily) and repression (also, hopefully, momentarily) triumphant deserves its own place in film history. Pussy Riot’s interrupted but powerful actions tearing at the anonymity and predictability of a stagnating stability seemed to represent a new word in stagnating times- an almost Pasolinian attempt to ‘give scandal’.  As mainstream film in Russia seems ever in danger of a return to a period of stagnation and back once again in the grip of the authorities, the Gogol’s Wives team have, at least, attempted to point some way to undermine any ensuing imposed ‘lakirovka’ on the complex urban reality surrounding them.  Sparing few details of the performances themselves and the wide range of reaction from irritation to amusement, confusion, exhilaration and anger, this film is a very significant debut and contribution to the need to renew filmic discourseIf  A Punk Prayer, in comparison, is a rather conventional exploration in individual motivation, Pussy versus Putin lingers on gestures and actions in a social space revelatory of an all too unimagined urban reality (at least from the viewpoint of a western viewer), highlighting a powerful moment of rupture and resistance.  For all its rough edges (of which there are few in A Punk Prayer) Pussy versus Putin deserves to be the film with which the story of Pussy Riot is most closely associated.
 
NOTES
(1) Published in the leading Russian monthly film journal Iskusstvo Kino (Art of Cinema) January 2014.
(2) http://lusine-djanyan.livejournal.com/209874.html
(3) http://www.buzzfeed.com/miriamelder/moscow-official-bans-showing-of-pussy-riot-film-at-leading-t
(6) http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/jan/04/documentary-oscars-get-political
(8) “Art is not a mirror with which to reflect the world but a hammer with which to shape it.”
(9) http://www.radicalphilosophy.com/commentary/what-is-pussy-riots-idea
(10) http://m.day.kiev.ua/en/article/culture/marina-razbezhkinas-snake-area-or-what-good-documentarist-cannot-do
(11) http://ufsinfronteradotcom.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/tercer-cine-getino-solonas-19691.pdf
(12) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9X-qLlkq3k
(13) http://www.nytimes.com/learning/teachers/featured_articles/20030903wednesday.html
(4) (5) (7) (14) Links no longer available.