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New Russian punk band documentary uncovers story behind 'punk prayer' protest

By Lindsay Claiborn

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When three women of Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot entered a Moscow church to perform a "punk prayer" in February of last year, little did they think their actions would land them behind bars and capture the world's attention.

A new documentary, "Pussy Riot - A Punk Prayer," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this week, follows the band members and their families as they struggle through the legal system in Russia.

The documentary tells the story of three women - Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30 - who as members of the feminist art collective Pussy Riot performed a 40-second "punk prayer" inside Russia's main cathedral on February 21, 2012.

Pussy Riot took on two powerful state institutions at once - the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government - when they burst into Moscow's golden-domed Christ the Savior Cathedral wearing bright ski masks, tights and colorful dresses to protest against President Vladimir Putin's close ties with the Church.

This performance led to their arrest on charges of religious hatred and culminated in a trial that reverberated around the world.

After a trial that was shown live on television, a judge ruled the three women had "committed an act of hooliganism, a gross violation of public order showing obvious disrespect for society."

The court found all three women guilty and sentenced them to two years in prison. Samutsevich later had her punishment converted to a suspended sentence.

"It was such a big soap opera in Russia," documentary co-director Maxim Pozdorovkin told Reuters.

"In Russia there is a national sort of sense that a lot of people believe that the girls got more or less what they deserved," he said.

The case became one of Russia's most high-profile trials since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It ignited comments from Madonna, Sting and Paul McCartney.

"Whereas in the West it was understood to be mostly a political human rights story, in Russia it was understood almost exclusively as a religious hooliganism, religious hatred story," Pozdorovkin said.

"In reality the story is so much bigger and so much richer and so epic, and I don't use that word lightly ... (that) while people still have this awareness of the story, we wanted to make a thought provoking film about it."

Pozdorovkin and co-director Mike Lerner, who started following the band around the time of their arrest, said that other documentaries and shows following the story had vilified the three women and that they were "victims of quite aggressive Russian television interviews and programs."

They wanted to make a film that went behind the news story of the three women and their trial, exploring through interviews their backgrounds and motivations to act as they did in the church.

"Various shows (were) made about the girls that were obviously quite negative, so they were very wary. But I think they quite realized a proper film that explored who they were and what their motivation was, was a good idea ... their contribution is vital to understanding who these women are," said Lerner.

The U.S. television rights were purchased by HBO during the festival.

(Writing by Piya Sinha-Roy; editing by Philip Barbara)

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