Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer Interview with director Mike Lerner

The name Pussy Riot is no doubt one many of you have read over the past year, having been at the centre of a media storm and spreading like wildfire over social media. The now infamous group were involved in a highly controversial situation at a Moscow cathedral resulting in the arrest of three young women – Nadia, Masha and Katia. We had the opportunity to talk to Mike Lerner, the director of the documentary Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer, about the fascinating situation in Russia, the worldwide impact of Pussy Riot on politics and why he was driven to capture the story on film.

Pussy-Riot_2339711bHow did you get into documentary filmmaking and who were you inspired by?

Initially I spent a long time making film on television. Honestly, I just fell into it really with no master plan. I was lucky to be involved in the late 80s with Channel 4 starting, so there was strong development in the industry. I was interested in covering art and culture at that time. Eventually I moved into features. Afghan Star was my first taste of a big film, following contestants in an Afghan reality talent show. It was hard to make but, as with any project, very rewarding if you get it right. I studied music which helped in some ways, but my path into documentaries certainly wasn’t traditional as such.

What was it like taking the step from television to film?

It wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision. It just came up as an opportunity. At the time it was a growing area and now these are the golden days of feature documentaries. Technology has allowed small cameras and cheap editing. We’re all able to do things we wouldn’t have been able to 20 years ago. The opportunity to capture stories is far bigger than it ever has been before. There are wide areas in the world that we have full access to that you never would have in the past. Audience appetite is bigger because of the freedom of information via the internet etc. Even just the advances in the ways we receive productions mean a greater number of films are out there. You can distribute internationally cheaper and through YouTube and others without having to simply rely on the cinema.

As you say, the internet plays a huge part in news these days, and this was very important in regards to Pussy Riot. What was it about their situation that inspired you to capture it on film?Pussy Riot A Punk Prayer 4

Well technically Pussy Riot exists as an internet phenomenon. They are a new performance art in a new age and the internet gave them instant success and notoriety. They’re certainly modern-day revolutionaries with their message and politics. It’s about learning that they’re not a punk rock band but a group of people using their love of punk rock as a guise for political protest. There’s a line where they both meet.

Really it was a no-brainer to pick up the story from an international perspective with the way everything was spiraling. I wanted to dig down into the underlying behaviour and why it was such a strong situation without logic. It was important to bring understanding to the viewers because there was a lot of miscommunication and lack of knowledge. The church was abused by the state and there was a growing sense of nationalism and extremism that many were unaware of around the world.

Do you feel a duty to produce a balanced piece of film or do you lean more towards documentaries giving attention and focus to a particular angle that might be under-represented?

Personally I don’t believe in balance in the media. Every film made or story told is from a subjective view, whether it be television news, newspapers, or documentaries. These things are important to understand because then audiences can take in the information in context. Documentaries are about educating without forcing opinions. You’re basically giving someone the tools to learn more, but they need to know where it’s coming from. The beauty of documentaries is the small group of independent people doing research and showing what they can. There’s no serving anyone else or pushing someone else’s agenda. It’s just one group and one perspective.

Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer was your first step into directing after many years of producing. How was the experience different and is it something you would like to do more of in the future?

mike-new-photo-307x174Directing is demanding. Very demanding! It requires a lot of concentration and overseeing everything. Really both roles are highly challenging with a lot of responsibility so they’re not all that different. You still need to be persuasive with getting funding etc, and try to tell the story as well as you can. All you want is for the subject to be appreciated in the world and for an audience to engage with it. In the end it’s a team effort with a shared end game, and I enjoy working with others. I’ve been very lucky to work with so many talented people at the top of their game. We all understand that it’s a privilege to be able to do what we do, with the freedom and resources that we have available to us. It’s always incredibly rewarding and interesting.

Your 2012 documentary Hell And Back Again was nominated for an Academy Award. How does it feel to be recognised in such a way and does it put pressure on you going forward?

Well, it was a wonderful privilege of course. You can’t afford to get caught up in awards chasing though. You have to make a film you’re proud of and then just hope people respond to it. You wonder what to do next, and you always want to achieve the best you can and constantly better yourself where possible. You do other things in their own unique way with an aim to top whatever you did previously. It’s usually rewarding whether critically or gaining an audience for a subject that deserves it.

Pussy Riot A Punk Prayer 1How do you feel about how the Pussy Riot situation has unfolded since your filming concluded?

It has been extremely disturbing since the movie. It’s amazing to think that they are behind bars and yet still controlling the situation and fighting for justice. Prison is almost irrelevant for them. They’re certainly still effective as campaigners and it will be great once they’re free. The state’s behaviour is shocking, still persecuting them and singling them out for harsh treatment. It’s nothing but an insecure state and it is speaking volumes about lack of confidence. The situation is really shocking and upsetting.

2013 and beyond looks like a really busy time for you. Could you tell us a little about any future projects you have coming up?
I have a film about Hungarian fascism, one about Egyptian pop music, and also the pull-out from Afghanistan. It’s great to have such a varied job. You get to see how the world is such a fascinating and yet terrible place.

Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer is released on DVD on 25 November.

For more information on the film, check out: http://www.pussyriotthedocumentary.com/, Facebookhttp://www.facebook.com/PyssyRiotTheDocumentary, Twitter: @PussyRiotDoc

And to keep up-to-date with director Mike Lerner, follow him on Twitter: @roastbeeftv, Website: http://www.roastbeeftv.com/people/mike-lerner/