“Humour is the most
damaging weapon we have”

Features, FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews
An interview with Mike Lerner, co-director of the rousing Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer.

Pussy Riot is the frontline of liberty, Salman Rushdie wrote recently. Via Skype, the passionate British filmmaker talks to Alexander Bisley about humour as a weapon, fascism, and documentary vitality; how artists win and why Putin will fall.

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ALEXANDER BISLEY: I think Pussy Riot—Nadia, Masha, Katya particularly—are awesome. It’s a much-abused word, but I mean it in the classical sense, they are awe-inspiring. Vladimir Putin’s close relationship with Pope Kirill and the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church demands protest.

MIKE LERNER: Kirill, the Russian Pope, drove the whole thing towards this criminal trial because he was experiencing various PR issues himself. Putin jumps on board and it suits him. Of course, he was suffering various PR disasters, too. So it’s an ever-fascinating storm of events that led to this extraordinary, historically important moment in Russian history. It’s like the Dreyfus affair, at the time, who knew it would live on forever? The trial of Dostoyevsky is a classic moment where the state challenges an artist and guess what? In the long term, the artist wins. In the long term, Pussy Riot win. They win the intellectual argument, they win the moral argument, and they win the artistic argument. The Punk Prayers have got to be the most effective, resonant, famous piece of performance art in the history of art.

AB: Well done to you and your co-director Maxim Pozdorovkin on your stirring documentary. You capture some extraordinary moments. At the end of their show trial, Nadia, Masha, and Katya speak so eloquently. Nadia concludes her defence perfectly: “I would like to read the words of a Pussy Riot song: ‘Open up the doors. Take off your uniforms. Come taste freedom with us.’”

ML: State television filmed their performance in court, and we cannily obtained that material. These carefully crafted and beautifully delivered speeches are a work of art, the stuff of history. One is very excited to think about what these very young women will do with the rest of their lives. It wouldn’t surprise me if Masha became president of Russia one day. God knows what they’re gonna do, I mean consider what they’ve done at age 24. And they’ll overcome their present hardships, which are not to be underestimated. Look at Masha, what she’s done in prison. She went on hunger strike, she lobbied for improved conditions for her fellow inmates. Even in prison she’s controlling the agenda and now she’s considered a hero in the prison, before she was seen as this bourgeois, ‘intellectual’, anti-religious person, as most criminals are deeply religious, having no other option.

I find that amazing, they get into court and they turn that into a piece of art; they go to prison and they transform conditions there. Pussy Riot are mind-blowing, they never miss an opportunity to transform and progress their situation for the good of everyone. We would love the film to convey that: the fact that they are patriots, they are people who love their country, love their society, want it to be more tolerant and more productive and just less in crisis, which it is, in a very depressing way.

AB: “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.”

ML: Ya [laughs]. Exactly what they are doing. So we hope, Max and I, that the film helps to convey the truth of that, because clearly they’ve been so misrepresented by Russian state media, and still are. But the film’s there and the record of what they said and did is there, and that’s of ultimately great use, I think, to the world.

AB: A powerful protest against the Putin regime. I spoke to Masha Gessen recently, and she agreed Pussy Riot has starkly shown Putin’s true colours.

ML: Yeah. I don’t think people have yet come to terms with the enormity of this story even though it’s very, very big. I think it will continue to play out. For example, how many other political dissidents there are in Russia, how many people being given ten-year sentences etcetera for their temerity to challenge Putin’s authority. Millions of people now recognise Pussy Riot and understand, like you say, the nature of their protests, and it is an own goal [for Putin]. It’s interesting that Putin was suckered into it. [Pope] Kirill phoned in a favour, and Putin delivered. It’s definitely characterised his rule for the eyes of the world in a very damning way.

It’s a year since the trial, but in the nature of Russian history a very short period of time. Not a day passes when this story doesn’t have some big turn of events. Indeed, now they have accepted a high court appeal hearing of the Pussy Riot case in Moscow. Fingers crossed it might result in early release, but even if it doesn’t it’s great insight for the rest of the world—and more importantly for Russians themselves—into the nature of this regime, which is vain, stupid, arrogant, short-sighted, and malicious. As shown by the continued persecution of these three women.

AB: Amazing, courageous women. “I don’t want to live in a world where there is no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity,” Edward Snowden self-congratulated.[1] Given the patent nature of the Putin regime, Edward Snowden shouldn’t have gone to Russia. 56 journalists have been killed there since 1992.

ML: I agree with you. It was very naïve and probably a choice made in panic rather than any real consideration, I suppose.

AB: It’s a really bad look.

ML: Indeed… I think what’s so great about the Pussy Riot story is its true nature becomes apparent really quickly—it is what it is. And, obviously the state will continue to justify it and paint it as something totally regular within the rationale of the legal system. But nobody [in the West] is convinced of that.[2]

AB: You weren’t allowed to interview the jailed Pussy Riot members? So you got some insightful comments from their families, like Nadia’s father.

ML: Their families weren’t allowed to visit them, let alone us bolshy Brit journalists.

AB: The Russian state cameramen got some artful—in the Russian cinematic tradition—shots of the show trial.

ML: We were very lucky that their performance in court was so profoundly fascinating and insightful, and that it was filmed in such a brilliant way. Hats off to the Russian state cameramen. There are so many breathtakingly beautiful shots of these women delivering, as I said before, what I think are moments of history.

AB: The scorchingly charismatic Nadia was denied parole for refusing to participate in the prison beauty pageant.

ML: It’s such a good story, isn’t it? Again, they keep on giving the Russian state, they keep on providing these totally surreal situations. That she should be denied parole because of her reluctance to participate in an act of misogyny! In a hundred years time people are going be writing about this stuff.

AB: Pussy Riot is the Russian spirit at its best.

ML: Definitely. Russia’s an extraordinary place and I love it so much because of its love of the mind and its love of ideas, and its love of art and expression and communication. So, in spite of its obvious tragic past and present, it doesn’t give up on the mind, and it doesn’t give up on the heart as well. It’s a very, very passionate place. So I love that.

AB: Were there particular inspirations as a younger man that made you a Russianist?

ML: Oh, many. Tarkovsky, and Solzhenitsyn, what a giant he is.

AB: What incredible books The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich are.

ML: What incredible books, he’s a byword for dissident art. And Malevich and Rodchenko, the passion for the intellect and the passion for passion is something I absolutely adore about Russia. We continue to make films there and hope to do that forever. Russia, Central Asia and the whole former Soviet Union is the most fascinating place for me.

“It’s very important we maintain our sense of humour and that’s probably the most important message I’d like to send to any documentary filmmaker: don’t lose your sense of humour, because however grim things are humour is the most damaging weapon we have, the most effective weapon we have against fascism. The fascists really don’t have a good sense of humour. Hitler never told a good joke, and I don’t think Putin’s ever told a good joke. I mean, he thinks he’s funny, but he’s really not funny.”

AB: Pussy Riot, with their fierce intellects, is the latest proud exemplars of a Russian tradition.

ML: They are typical of it, and they see themselves in a tradition of it. They’re Marxists, situationists, feminists. We are living in an age of consumerism. The world of ideas is so important, and it’s been so lost in Britain. [In New Zealand] you are probably living in a similar condition to America and Europe, where ideas are secondary to consumption?

AB: We got Rupert Murdoch first. Before Fox News, before his British tabloids, he Murdochised the New Zealand media.

ML: Yep, so you know all about that. We’re not victims, and we have to defy that, make a film or write a magazine, we’re so lucky that we can form objection. It’s the only thing I’m interested in, and everybody I respect, that’s what gets them up every morning. It’s the possibility, and the opportunity, to offer a different point of view. And of course we’re drowned out by 90 percent of the media, but we sneak in with ten percent. That’s enough.

AB: I always enjoy Bill Maher? You?

ML: Yeah, of course. We were on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart last week, he’s great. He’s somebody who has no ideological position, he’s somebody that finds inconsistency funny, and hypocrisy funny, and that’s it. He was great. He’s a big fan of Pussy Riot.  And he loves the word pussy.

AB: What do you think of Alex Gibney?

ML: I haven’t seen his WikiLeaks film yet, but I’m a very big fan of Alex. He’s a wonderful filmmaker, very fearless and very skilful.

AB: Is there another documentary you’ve seen this year which has particularly impressed you?

ML: Several.[3] Documentary film has never been so vibrant and so useful and so developed as a form.

AB: I agree, it’s exciting. I think people have to give some credit to Michael Moore for this.

ML: Oh, I totally do. I love Michael Moore; he’s great. He’s got the great skill of making funny films about tragic subjects. And indeed people find aspects of our Pussy Riot film funny. It’s a very black humour, and it’s obviously a very tragic film, but indeed one of Pussy Riot’s great weapons is humour. Alex Gibney is very wry.

AB: There’s some terrific wry humour in his Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room.

ML: Exactly. It’s very important we maintain our sense of humour and that’s probably the most important message I’d like to send to any documentary filmmaker: don’t lose your sense of humour, because however grim things are, humour is the most damaging weapon we have, the most effective weapon we have against fascism. The fascists really don’t have a good sense of humour. Hitler never told a good joke, and I don’t think Putin’s ever told a good joke. I mean, he thinks he’s funny, but he’s really not funny [laughs].

AB: DBC Pierre, the British satirist who wrote Russia-set Ludmilla’s Broken English, told me “Reality isn’t plausible.” Putin’s less smart than he thinks he is; making gaffes that make him look ridiculous.

ML: Thank goodness! [laughs].

AB: I tend to be suspicious of people who don’t have a sense of humour.

ML: Exactly. Humour’s part of Pussy Riot’s armoury. It will continue I’m sure [laughs].

AB: It must be exciting working on this project with HBO?

ML: They’re all about it. They totally get it. Interestingly, HBO’s documentary department is run by women. Sheila Nevins is the boss and all her team are women and from the very beginning they saw this story as so important and emblematic and a feminist victory, ideologically and culturally. And as a man I feel powerfully comfortable in saying that. If men can’t be feminists then there is no future for feminism.

AB: I think most feminists think it’s important that men can be feminists.

ML: Absolutely they do. Certainly Pussy Riot do, and certainly any major thinker on this subject would. We’ve had some criticism of that but it’s ridiculous, and it’s offensive. It only comes from people whose opinion I don’t respect. Every serious feminist thinker, writer, has been incredibly supportive of the film. Two half-baked journalists just want to try to make a point [laughs].

AB: There’s no pleasing some people.

ML: I’ve made films about all sorts of people all over the world and I continue to do that. The idea that somebody should dictate what you should be interested in, and what you should choose to write or film about, that’s offensive, that’s totally censorial and fascistic, really. That’s ridiculous.

AB: Some supposed progressives can also be censorious; labelling fair criticism of Islamism racist.

ML: I think we just have to oppose fascism in all its forms and if it comes in religious garb then we oppose it, if it comes in a Starbucks uniform we oppose it. However it offends us we have to stand up to it. But I certainly don’t decry anybody’s faith…[4]

I would disagree these people are of the left. I think they think they are ideological fascists ultimately and they want to control and censor. Its managerialism essentially, I think a better word for it than fascism is managerialism. These people think there’s an objective way of controlling the world and they are right, and they’re not. And we have to try and expose their weakness in any way we can. Pussy Riot exposed Putin’s weakness in a 40 second performance in a cathedral, and we have to pick out opportunities wherever we can to do the same.

AB: So, what’s it like being in Russia at the moment?

ML: We’re about to go to the Ukraine for the Odessa Film Festival… Russia’s last summer in particular was a very exciting moment, revolution was in the air and there were tens of thousands of people on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg. That’s not the case right now. People have gone to ground; they have been cowed by legislation and by this Pussy Riot trial, there have been a dozen other trials that have sought to suppress legitimate dissent. So it’s a very sad time. People have retreated. But they’re not defeated. When Pussy Riot are released, they’re not gonna retire. They are gonna find new and intriguing and innovative ways and resources to challenge what is obviously an injust and corrupt situation.

Look at Egypt, Max and I’ve been making a film there for a couple of years and who knew that in the space of three days, the revolution that people had died for is transformed and co-opted and hijacked, but it’s not over. It just takes longer than we thought. You need several acts unfortunately. This is true in Russia’s case too, I mean, last year was the beginning of something. But it’s gonna take a long time for it to mature. People can’t even imagine Putin being out of power, but he will. Putin will fall and what Pussy Riot did will be one of the causal factors of that.

This interview was made possible by the Melbourne International Film Festival and Madman Australia. Thanks to Aaron Caleb Bardo for some transcription assistance on this article.
Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer’ screens at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2013, opening in Auckland on July 18, Wellington on July 26, Christchurch on August 1, Dunedin on August 8, and tours the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.
The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.


[1] AB: The Wire’s David Simon is very skeptical about the NSA controversy: “The U.K.’s Guardian, which broke this faux-scandal, is unrelenting in its desire to scale the heights of self-congratulatory hyperbole.”

[2] ML: Many Russians resent Pussy Riot because they think they attacked a victim, the Orthodox Church was a victim of decades of repression and torture and murder [under communism], etc. And people think why the hell are they picking on these people? So that’s still the reason that people are still protective, I think, in favour of the church and therefore anti-Pussy Riot, but I think in time that perspective will change and they’ll see that actually what Pussy Riot were doing was trying to breathe the oxygen of freedom and truth into the Russian discourse.

[3] ML: Have you seen After Tiller? About late-term abortionists in America, which is incredibly heroic, an amazing film and very moving, and raises lots of fascinating questions. Have you seen The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear? It’s a Georgian film, the premise is: the director goes out and is casting for young people to be in a film and she interviews all these Georgians about their lives and hopes and again it’s very, very tragic; but it’s very, very beautiful and profound. Call Me Kuchu is a wonderful film about the gay rights movement in Uganda and the death of one of its leading activists.

[4] ML: I personally don’t feel the need to have any religious faith, but clearly it’s a factor in many people’s lives, and one can understand that people flock to these ideologies because they are victims of economic and social injustice. So whilst I don’t support these ideologies, I certainly understand people’s need for it.