The Esper Machine: The Collaborative Filmmaking Team of Pussy Riot, Patriarch Kirill, and Vladimir Putin

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by Drew Gardner
January 16, 2014 1:09 PM
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Putin's gradual de-democratizing of Russia, increasingly autocratic rule, election fraud, and creation of a new political alliance with the Orthodox Church form the context in which Pussy Riot emerged as pro-democracy activists. They had their roots in an earlier political performance art collective, Voina. Both Voina and Pussy Riot are closer to Occupy Wall Street-style direct action protestors than they are to typical American political punk rock bands or performance artists. Both art groups have focused on video documentation of outrageous, unsanctioned, impromptu public performances. Their method is to use shock value to draw attention to power imbalances in their society. Both groups are activists, but in their methods of manifestation they are  primarily filmmakers, reaching the world though the internet and relying on their opponents' overreaction to reach their audiences. Putin and Kirill were eventually to become the executive producers of Pussy Riot's film production efforts.

Pussy Riot was formed in 2011, during the anti-Kremlin protests against parliamentary election fraud by Putin's United Russia party and the crackdown on dissent that followed it. Tens of thousands of Russians gathered in central Moscow, a temporary coalition of liberals, nationalists and communists. The fact that Putin claimed that Hillary Clinton was responsible for inspiring the protests demonstrates the degree to which he portrayed criticism of the government as the result of malicious outside influences bent on destroying the country, a classic rhetorical maneuver not unheard of in the United States. The fact that he could pronounce such a patently absurd claim with such confidence indicates the level of control he wields over Russian state television. His absurd pronouncements in news releases are proof of his skill as a film producer, a director and an actor.

It is in this context of protest and the subsequent return of Putin to the presidency that Pussy Riot emerged as an art collective making creative interventions with a Russia moving incrementally towards autocracy. Despite being educated, middle class Muscovites, they have been violently uninterested in institutional ensconcement, money, or critical acceptance. They have never released any music commercially. Their approach as filmmakers has been to focus single-mindedly on changing their society while sticking rigorously to their own style. Their earnestness, commitment to ideas, naiveté, and self-possession made them the central writers and actors working in an ensemble cast, with a plot in which antagonists collaborated in a multimedia performance event with a massive scale of production and a global audience. They reinvented the rock video for the information age.

The unofficial Pussy Riot production team of Putin and Kirill had been developing for several years, as the Orthodox church grew in power while developing stronger ties to the Kremlin. Just before President Putin's controversial election to a third term, Kirill pronounced Putin's twelve-year rule a "miracle of God," stated that it was "unchristian" to join protest rallies, and asserted that it was part of one's religious duty to vote for Putin. He recommended that the faithful instead pray silently in the privacy of their homes. As the church has increasingly became a propaganda wing for the Kremlin, Moscow has put restrictions on other churches and "foreign" faiths. Putin has used public tax monies toward restoring Orthodox churches, and church officials have reciprocated by openly campaigning for Putin and his party.

The documentary film producer Mike Lerner had already begun his film about Pussy Riot before their performance of "Punk Prayer — Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!" at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. His co-director Maxim Pozdorovkin was his connection in Moscow. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is built around footage, procured by Pozdorovkin, that was filmed with the consent of the government through the Russian version of Reuters. It was originally meant to be streamed, but the government shut down the stream after the first few days of the trial, sensing it might not be flattering. The footage leaked though. Most of it had never been seen before. The three defendants in the trial, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Mariya Alyokhina, and Ekaterina Samutsevich, known as Nadia, Masha, and Katia, had requested that the proceedings be filmed, and this was agreed upon with the court. The heart of the film, then, is an elaborated work of appropriated footage originally produced by the Kremlin. It is a court procedural of a blasphemy trial, with contextualizing background material on the three defendants, their parents, as well as information about the Church and the prosecutors. Though slow-moving and somewhat incomplete as a documentary, it an extremely important piece of political appropriation art, and is at the center of the massive interconnected networks of footage and texts that comprise the overall collaboration of Putin's church/state complex and Pussy Riot's feminist performance art collective. The film shows the three women transforming the trial from a pro-forma pseudo-legalistic suppression of dissent to an exposure of the draconian conditions of Russia's court system and a forum for them to explain their art, their values, and their ideas.

Pussy Riot is a group of activist-artists, but these activists are also purveyors of a formula. The idea: put on spontaneous hit and run punk rock music performances with a political message, done in symbolic public areas. The performers are anonymous women wearing balaclavas and dresses arranged with wildly clashing Fauvist color schemes. The tone is angry,the message focused, but all is done with humor and an intentional note of silliness. "Anybody can take on this image, masks, dresses, instrument and lyrics. It's not hard. Write a song. Think of a place to perform," says Nadia. Pussy Riot is a guerrilla performance art formula meant for others to take up.

Nadia, Masha, and Katia took this formula to the stage at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior as a protest against the partnership of Putin and the Orthodox Church in stealing the elections. The performance took place in an area preserved for priests on the soleas, where woman are forbidden. The song "Punk Prayer - Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!" features an angry punk riff reminiscent of the early British punk band Cockney Rejects, alternating with a prayer to the Virgin Mary, beseeching her to drive Putin out of office. The lyrics include the lines:

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away,
Put Putin away, put Putin away.

Shit, shit, the Lord's shit!

The Church’s praise of rotten dictators.
The cross-bearer procession of black limousines.
A teacher-preacher will meet you at school.

Go to class - bring him money!

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist.

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1 Comment

  • Jason @ FilmmakingStuff.com | January 20, 2014 12:18 PMReply

    This is a great story and one that totally needs to be seen.

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