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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
1 Comment
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The song lasted less than a minute before security at the church had the performers removed. The police arrived at the scene, but they never bothered to opened a case. Shortly afterward, a video was uploaded to Pussy Riot's Live Journal page and quickly appeared on YouTube. It was only then that the three members of Pussy Riot were subsequently arrested by the Russian authorities and charged with "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred." Someone high up had seen the video and made a call.

Pussy Riot, a Punk Prayer begins with an image of Masha entering a room in medias res. The door swings open suddenly and she rushes in, looks around suspiciously at the green institutional space, hastily takes off her jacket and sits down with an odd half-smile on her face. There is something strange about the rushed pacing of the scene, as though it were shot backwards or sped up, and the tone of it leads into the sporadic feeling of alternate reality the court footage will take on. It is like a scene out of a Buñuel film. Masha’s burst through this door is analogous to the speed with which Pussy Riot turned from obscure activists into a global cause célèbre.

The film shows the trial taking place in an impossibly small, overcrowded courtroom; only the defendant's families and the press could attend. The room seems to shrink as the film progresses. It was intentionally chosen by the government to reduce the amount of people who could witness the trial in person, perhaps anticipating the level of absurdity that would be required to make the women appear to have been motivated by religious hatred. After all, anyone beseeching the Virgin Mary to join their cause has accepted her authority to some extent. Their lyrics include, "Mother of God, rid us of Putin." Objections to the anti-Putin message of the song fueled the engine that set these events in motion. In order to prove their case of "Hooliganism motivated by religious hatred," the prosecutors were forced to frame the proceedings as a blasphemy trial, assuming that offended conservatives would accept this framework, forgetting that they ostensibly lived in a secular constitutional democracy. This approach worked marvelously. Russia is a highly conservative country, and Pussy Riot is mostly unpopular, especially in the heartland, where news comes primarily from Putin-controlled state television, where the women are portrayed as agents of foreign governments who themselves are controlled "by Satan." The majority of Russians identify as Russian Orthodox, even though most don't believe in god, and the trial gave the government the chance to portray its political opponents as threatening, disrespectful troublemakers and to solidify Putin's state/church partnership.

The case against Pussy Riot was so flimsy and the trial so obviously rigged that no one really believed they were guilty of a hate crime. They were on trial for opposing Putin and Kirill and the trial was justified by highlighting the offence taken by the faithful. The language of the prosecution leaned heavily on the crimes of offending "God" and "the entire Christian world."  The need to demonstrate that "moral harm" was done to the handful of churchgoers who were present in the almost empty cathedral at the time of the performance led to testimonies like that of one candle seller who stated, "They spit into my soul and into the soul of my God." Other injured parties spoke about being profoundly offended by the colors of the women's dresses and their exposed shoulders. The spectacle of criminal proceedings focusing on the offended emotions of believers is closer to Muslim fundamentalist culture, an Orthodox Christian jihad.

The three women stood accused of doing the "Devil's work," and they were convicted for it, serving two years in Russian labor camps. The judge, Marina Syrova, who had declined to hear nearly all defense witnesses, pronounced that the women posed a danger to society and stated that they had committed "grave crimes" of "insult and humiliation of the Christian faith." She indicated that defendants had psychological disorders, and she excoriated them for embracing feminism, a “mortal sin.” Their mental problems included "a proactive approach to life, a drive for self-fulfillment, stubbornly defending their opinion, and propensity for protest reactions.” Amnesty International declared them Prisoners of Conscience.

The claustrophobic interiors shots of the courtroom in Lerner's film create a feeling of contained otherworldliness, where the rules of normal modern judicial logic disappear and a Kafkaesque tone prevails. There is an alteration of the nature of reality within the confined space of the courtroom, reminiscent of Buñuel's Exterminating Angel, with its dinner guests at a party inexplicably unable to leave. Pussy Riot, a Punk Prayer captures a setting in which multiple stages of history exist simultaneously. The prosecution draws on medieval Orthodox Christian liturgical texts as evidence and the defendants give articulate speeches that quote from western critical theory and modern Russian conceptual poetry. This situation of simultaneous stages of historical development existing on the same stage reflects the state of current Russia, with it's mixtures of undrinkable tap water and modern shopping centers.

The light that dies off at the rectangular edges of the movie screen does not mark the essential framing of this film. There is a frame within a frame that draws our attention to the movie's arbitrary edges, even as it replaces them as the central device defining the subjects: The women are shot almost entirely through a glass box they were confined to in the courtroom. At the time it was nicknamed "the aquarium." It is as though another reality containment field appeared within Buñuel's mad dinner party, this one encapsulating modernity and sanity in its airless chamber within the larger madness enclosed around it. The glass box evokes an aquarium, a wardrobe, and a partition in a cell in a zoo by turns. It separates the accused from the space of the courtroom and suggests that those inside the box exist in a alternate judicial reality that is being witnessed though a kind of window. It implies that the defendants are dangerous, and that they are so hated that they need to be protected from attack even within the confines of the court. Its wood and glass work their magic gradually and almost invisibly; the box suggests that the rules for those on the inside of the box are not the same for those on the outside. This is how ideology works, by framing, by allowing the visibility of the frame to inexplicably erode in importance from one's cognitive field of vision.

But information has a way of escaping. As we look at the women, we also see the reflections of the court officials, family members and security guards. We can see how small the room is on its opposite side, just as we saw Kirill's watch reflected in the high gloss of his desk's wooden surface. There are bright strobe flashes, the dark distorted silhouettes of photographers and murky shapes that shift and loom with a blurred menace. These ambiguous images in the glass suggest alternate possible fates for these women,  alternate possible futures of Russia. They form and change into different possibilities of manifestation, different histories. The reflections of the reality outside the box and the images of the women inside, laughing at the absurd comedy of the draconian proceedings, fuse together mutually enclosed spaces of the trial in an uncanny collage, a kind of film within a film. The glass box is the state's framing device, but it is also an Esper Machine.   After Macha's final statement, the judge makes a spectacularly counterfactual statement that epitomizes the dark comedy of the trial: "Let me remind you this is not a theater." The preordained trial was primarily designed to be a theater, to set an example for any manifestation of opposition.

The massive film art collaboration of Pussy Riot, Kirill and Putin has two different audiences and two different meanings that go along with them. The Russian audience saw an insult to their faith and to state power rightfully punished by a strong authority. This opportunity to pander to chauvinism and to make the population feel threatened increased Putin's popularity and solidified this partnership with the Orthodox church, who in turn demonstrated they can easily whip up a vengeful moral outrage when it's politically useful. Learner's film has been banned, and Putin has signed a bill imposing jail terms and fines for insulting people's religious feelings: the "Pussy Riot" law. The Russian protest movement has been defeated for the time being.

In the West, the sprawling Pussy Riot phenomenon read as a primarily as freedom of expression issue. It generated worldwide criticism of constraints on political speech in Russia and garnered widespread support from American pop musicians. Pussy Riot, a Punk Prayer has been short listed for an Oscar nomination. The western framing of Pussy Riot as being essentially about individual freedom of expression is somewhat ironic, considering the group was explicitly formed to proliferate in a way that included collective direct action and total anonymity. Western supporters may be surprised to find that the group is staunchly anti-capitalist. "We refuse to perform as part of the capitalist system, at concerts where they sell tickets.” The western response to Pussy Riot has also included a fair share of sexist dismissals, both through claims that the women are seeking fame and only get attention because they are attractive, and in supporting them as glamorous celebrities while largely ignoring their ideas. The chances that Pussy Riot-style actions could flourish in the West are questionable. In New York, there is a 150-year-old law that makes it illegal to congregate in public with two or more people while wearing a mask or any face covering that disguises your identity. The law has been used several times against Occupy Wall Street protestors and was implemented during a Pussy Riot support rally, in which several people were arrested for wearing balaclavas. Russia is not the only country using archaic laws for the purpose of harassing civil society.

Masha and Nadia were released two months short of their sentences in an amnesty measure designed to make Russia appear to be a modern country with a rule of law,leading up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, another large-scale theatrical event. In the tradition of Russian dissidents, these women have committed the crime of refusing to publicly accept their own powerlessness, and they paid for it. They now have plans to form a new human rights group focusing on prisoners’ rights, something they are now well-qualified to work on. 

It remains to be seen what the production team of Putin and Kirill will come up with next.  Putin is himself a skilled appropriation artist. He produced a highly conceptual master's thesis, plagiarizing large sections of text verbatim from the work of two University of Pittsburgh academics. His creative skills and knowledge of his audience are considerable. It's likely that Masha and Nadia may be working on some kind of sequel with him in the future.

Drew Gardner’s books include Chomp Away (Combo, 2010), and Petroleum Hat (Roof Books, 2005). He tweets at @chompaway and lives in New York City.

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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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