Culture

Pussy Riot Slays Audience at Greenwich Film Festival

Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alekhina of Pussy Riot/Photo via Greenwichfilm.org

A bastion of wealth and conservatism like Greenwich, Connecticut, might not be the first place you'd look for an international film festival championing tough social issues, but here we are: the first annual Greenwich Film Festival debuted June 4 - 7 with an ambitious lineup of features and panels designed to challenge adventurous appetites. In the custom of the country, the event also had a philanthropic thrust, raising funds for UNICEF, and featuring a bevy of high-end sponsors including Bentley and jetBlue.

Most impressively, the lineup included a live conversation with Russian punk/political act Pussy Riot, whose core members Nadezhda "Nadya" Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina rose to global stardom after being imprisoned for their vocal criticism of the Putin administration. The two were joined Sunday by Nadya's husband, Pyotr Verzilov, and moderator and Fordham professor Zephyr Teachout for a rousing discussion about their new music video "I Can't Breathe" (watch below), which draws parallels between Russian propaganda and the recent death of New York City resident Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD.

The video came with physical challenges as well as political, requiring the women to be buried alive in real time, a process accomplished in six takes. "It was like a meditation," recalled Nadya. "It could be useful for everyone to try being buried alive at least one time." The potent visual metaphor wasn't just in service to their politics, the group clarified: It was also meant as a backhanded enticement to those in Russia who really would like to see them killed.

Idyllic New England surroundings notwithstanding, their visit to America has hardly been a vacation. In addition to participating in events like Boston's Gay Pride celebration, the band members have also shone a light into the dark corners of the U.S. prison system, visiting NYC's troubled Rikers Island and attempting to tour Danbury's Federal correctional institution. Their invitation to the latter was withdrawn at the last minute, but they showed up anyway -- a tactic Nadya says they've relied on numerous times in their home country whenever official welcomes were later privately revoked. Suffice to say, the Feds were not impressed.

While reluctant to claim any authority on American issues, Pussy Riot have been impressed by the public grieving of Garner's death, and of the acquittal that followed. Russia is a place where even the assassination of a high-profile figure gets a fairly muted reaction, so it struck them as radical that an ordinary citizen's death could still make waves. The group participated in a New York City protest in Garner's honor, learning and observing. On their trip to Rikers Island, they found themselves to be the only white people in the long line of prisoner visitors that day, a crash course in the steep inequality of America's criminal justice system.

Asked how Americans might be able to help those fighting for freedom in Russia, the band reminded the audience of the impact our culture has on faraway places. For example, "House of Cards" became a huge hit in Russia, so when onerous Russian politics crept into the third season's storyline, it actually elicited an official statement from the government concerning Putin's awareness (or non-awareness, rather) of the show.

Aside from that, they urge fearlessness in all matters political and artistic. "It should not stop you that you will be detained," observed Nadya. "If they arrest you, it will work for you."

With such a prolific career in activism, why still make music? This question from Teachout inspired Nadya to share a Russian saying translating roughly to "Die with music," using the doomed musicians from James Cameron's "Titanic" as a handy reference. "All things are better with music," she explained, "So dying also." The women recalled the opportunities prison afforded for singing and dancing, small acts of defiance they discovered were still being investigated by officials months after they occurred.

Will Pussy Riot ever leave Russia once and for all? Don't hold your breath. "It would be simpler for Putin to leave than us," observed Maria. The audience laughed appreciatively, especially as it dawned on them that she wasn't kidding around.