There’s a lot of crossover between documentary filmmaking and journalism. In fact, you could argue that the former is actually part of the latter, rather than part of cinema.
When I got a chance to speak with Mike Lerner, the director of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, I felt content that there was someone on the camera-wielding side of the fence who felt the way I did about documenting current events, and the need for presenting the facts in a way that allowed people to make their own decisions.
The documentary itself, about the Russian feminist activists who received international media attention in 2012 when they were arrested for protesting in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour church, is an intense watch. Ridiculously over-the-top gaol sentences, huge protests against a perceived slight against the Russian Orthodoxy – “high stakes” doesn’t quite cover the consequences when you’ve chosen one of Russia’s holy sites as the spot for your protest.
As a result, when I spoke to Lerner, I was curious as to whether or not they’d run into any trouble actually making the documentary itself, given that they’re obviously not biased towards the cause of the Orthodox faithful who filled the streets of Moscow in counter-protest.
“People were wondering, initially, what a British film crew were doing there, and before they realised the international resonance of the story, but at no time was anybody really trying to cover anything up or prevent us from doing anything,” says Lerner. “The courts, the police – they’re all pretty accessible.”
What was interesting, I tell him, was the breadth of interview candidates. The film wasn’t just a platform for Pussy Riot to put across their point of view from behind bars or in hiding – it allowed those who were anything but supportive of the punk protest group could talk about how they felt. “They don’t really think they’ve got anything to hide,” says Lerner, “so they’re keen to put forward their point of view, and expound on their theories about the whole thing.”
This is true, and highlights what I love about the film. This isn’t Michael Moore walking around putting people on the back foot by being aggressively critical (and in one case, overly sensitive), instead the crew offered everyone an equal platform. The result is a clearer overall picture, and it’s nice to be offered a documentary where you’re allowed to form your own opinion and there’s no narrator pushing sympathy. I used the term “objective,” when I described A Punk Prayer to Lerner, but his response to my choice of adjective was interesting.
“I don’t believe in the concept of objectivity. No press, no media is actually objective – the very choice of subject and the way in which you’re reporting things is already a subjective decision. Little guys like us can sneak through and try and present an alternative frame on what’s happening.”
So, when the events are actually taking place while the documentary is being made, is it actually possible to remain detached? Should one avoid using voices that may offer a stronger opinion out of concern that they might bias your attempt at a dispassionate approach? Are documentaries that focus on events and individuals long since past a different, perhaps easier, task to undertake?
“It’s obviously very exciting, but also has its problems,” says Lerner. “It’s quite difficult to get a perspective on something that is actually happening, and to sort out its significance and what it all means. By focusing on the trial, that was something that gave us a sort of perspective, really. In terms of what it all means for the future? We’ll let history decide on that.”
Lerner feels that it was a situation in which the best approach was simply to create as informative a film as possible. “It was a weird and unusual thing to happen, so our job was to follow it and to try not to come to too many conclusions about it, let it speak for itself. I think people are still working on what it all means and what its relevance is. I think it’ll take many years for the whole thing to be clear.”