Sundance 2013: Pussy Riot Doc Filmmakers Eyeing Follow-Up to the 'Story of the Decade' (Q&A)

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It’s been a good year for docs at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, with many of the early sales going to unscripted projects. And among the buzziest films in the first week of screenings was the Pussy Riot documentary from Maxim Pozdorovkin and Mike Lerner, Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer.

HBO purchased the film’s U.S. TV rights just two days after the Jan. 18 premiere, while the theatrical rights remain available.

The film revolves around radical-feminist punk-rock group Pussy Riot and their subsequent imprisonment following a satirical performance in Moscow. While one member of the trio (Yekaterina Samutsevich) remains free on a technicality, the other two (Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina) continue to serve their two-year sentences and have not yet seen the film. Immediately following the premiere, Samutsevich spoke to the audience via Skype.

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Shortly after the sale, the filmmakers sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss the quick turnaround for their film (completed over the course of less than a year and finished just eight days before its premiere), plotting a follow-up (“We certainly intend to make another film with them,” says Pozdorovkin) and why HBO is a perfect fit for the movie.

The Hollywood Reporter: When did you guys start working on this project?

Mike Lerner: Well, back in January, pictures began appearing in the British press of these strange women in balaclavas, and we wondered who these people were, what it was they wanted, so we decided to pursue the story. And when they were subsequently arrested, we obviously felt that there was a huge story on our hands and we just kept following it. I mean, obviously nobody knew it would grow to the proportions that it did or what would happen at all, but as it turned out it’s become the sort of story of the decade.

THR: That’s perfect timing for you at their misfortune, I suppose. What is their reaction to the project? How have they embraced it?

Maxim Pozdorovkin: I think they had known about the film, but once one of the members, Yekaterina, was released, we started talking more directly about the film. She had seen several cuts and she’s been very, very supportive of them. I think she likes the film very much. At our premiere -- because she has a suspended sentence, she can’t leave the country -- but we had her via Skype talking to the audience and I think she enjoyed the questions and everything else.

THR: That’s a quick turnaround if you just started in January.

MP:  And ended mid-October.

ML: Yeah, exactly. We just had a couple of months to shape the film, but you know, needs must. Obviously, getting into Sundance is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a film, and so we took it and worked very hard, very quickly, and got the film here. Ordinarily, obviously, you would have more time, but you know, that’s what documentary is. You’re responding to real events, and we have another film at Sundance called The Square, which is a film about the Egyptian Revolution, and similarly they were filming two weeks ago and the film premiered the other night. That’s the curse and the blessing of documentary, I think. 

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THR: What was the rush to turn this one around? Two of them are still in jail, so arguably there’s still more story to be told.

ML: We wanted to really make the film about the trial. In a way, this film covers the events of the trial. We certainly intend to make another film with them.

MP: I think that one of the things that interested us is why those 40 seconds -- what they did when they went into the cathedral -- why it became such a perfect storm of everything. We often talk about how this possibly could be one of the most controversial and the most resonant pieces of performance art in history. The trial was important because it really brought together all these elements: Russia not having a punk culture, not having a performance-art culture, the resurgence of religious fundamentalism in Russia, the political situation, and all these things kind of came together in the story. In a way, once it was a sentencing and an outcome, that story was done -- but, you know, future stories are made to be told.

THR: What is your timeline for those future stories? Are you going back right away to follow it?

ML: We probably will sort of continue our contact and developing our relationship with the story, so it’s ongoing really. We’re not specifically making another film at this moment. We just finished this one and enjoyed showing it. Obviously, you gotta watch that space, you know, with all of them. They’re fascinating people, and we have a theory that one of them will end up being president of Russia one day. They’re so young. They’ve got so much ahead of them. It would be fascinating to see what happens.

THR: You finished the film 10 days ago? Is that what you’re saying?

MP: I think it was probably like eight days ago, but yeah.

THR: Can you talk about watching it with an audience for the first time? I know it was a packed house.

MP: It was great. It was a really pleasant surprise. Certain things got laughs that we didn’t expect. For the most part, I think the audience’s responses have been very positive and validated certain things that we had. It was nerve-racking in a sense because so few people had seen it and so that was somewhat unusual. Overall, we can’t complain. All the screenings have been great.

THR: And the movie sold last night.

ML: This is my third Sundance. Fortunately, we were here in 2009 with Afghan Star and 2011 with Hell and Back Again and both those films had been sold prior to Sundance. It’s the kind of thing you hear about happening to other people, and when it happens to you, it’s wonderful. We’re absolutely thrilled. We’ve worked with HBO a lot in the past, and they’re wonderful people to work with. I’m sure they’ll do great things to the film, so yeah. We couldn’t be happier.

THR: You think it’s a great fit for HBO?

ML: I do, absolutely. As I say, we’ve had a couple of films with them before. Afghan Star, in fact, was with HBO. They know what to do with the film and they know how to treat filmmakers very much. They’re very great people to work with.

THR: All of the documentaries seemed to be selling first before the scripted features. The Eagles documentary went to Showtime, Twenty Feet From Stardom was the first to be sold. Why do you think that is?

MP: It’s the golden age of documentary. I don’t know, honestly. I mean that completely sincerely.

ML: Quite obviously, they’re a lot cheaper. No, it is. It’s true, I think, and I think Sundance has been absolutely instrumental in putting documentary on an equal footing to fiction. That’s what’s so amazing about this festival. I mean, all right, there are other strictly documentary festivals, and obviously other festivals do have some documentary element to them, but the way you’re treated at Sundance and the way you’re positioned at Sundance, I think, yeah, when you’re a buyer looking at these things ... a documentary can seem as attractive and as viable a proposition as a feature, as a fiction, so it’s fascinating.

MP: I think that one of the main things is that there’s so many great docs being made. I think that there is sort of genuine flowering, and I think that we will look back on this as the golden age of documentary. I’m not sure if I would say that about a fiction film today.

SUNDANCE REVIEW: Pussy Riot -- A Punk Prayer

THR: A lot of music documentaries, too. All of the ones I just mentioned are music-based, which is kind of interesting.

MP: You know, music and politics is sort of the golden combination. The golden ticket.

THR: Absolutely. What’s next for you guys?

ML: Well, we’ll get back to -- Max is in New York. I’m in London. We have several other projects in production and in development, so I guess when we get our feet back down on the ground, we’ll carry on making films, which is what we live to do.

MP: I’m directing a film, it should be done around May, about a Russian arms dealer named Victor Boot.

THR: Any plans or aspirations to return to Park City next year?

ML: Absolutely. Yeah, of course, every year. It’s hard to go consecutive years 'cause it usually takes a good year to make a film. Of course we can’t wait to come back.

THR: Back to Pussy Riot, the girls obviously had a lot of support from fellow musicians around the world.

MP: There’s tons of people from the very beginning. I mean, Bjork, Faith No More, Peter Gabriel, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Peaches. I think that their involvement -- I mean, there was a mass response to it.

ML: It obviously has resonance outside of Russia. Inside of Russia, I’m not sure what influence it had, if any, into being told what to do by the West or by Madonna, anybody over here. No, of course, for their morale it was very important to know that the world was with them and such major figures were supporting them.

MP: I think it also made them global feminist icons in a way much more so than, and that’s what the girls ultimately are. Ultimately, the story is of a foiled feminist revolution.

THR: Now with this movie being distributed, it can only grow in popularity, I’d imagine.

ML: Exactly. It is part of the revolution. There’s no doubt. They’re communicators of ideas. That’s their job and we hope we have represented those ideas in the film fully, and certainly that was our aim.

THR: Are you able to show the girls that are in prison the film?

ML: Sadly not. I mean, Yekaterina is in contact with them and can talk about it, but sadly, there is no opportunity for them to see it. I wish that there were. When the film is released and they’re released, that would be great.

THR: Do you expect the film to be changed at all between now and its official release?

ML: I mean, yeah, the film is about the consequences of an action, and the consequence was this extraordinary trial. It’s a historically surreal moment in Russian history and the consequence, which was their being found guilty and being given two-year sentences. Beyond that, of course, there’s plenty to tell, but in another film.

MP: I think that their release [from jail] would be the start of a new film and not in the continuation of our film. I think that, realistically, that’s the only outcome.

Email: Sophie.Schillaci@THR.com; Twitter: @SophieSchillaci

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