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Can Pussy Riot Conquer Hollywood?

Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina flank Jim Carrey.
Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina flank Jim Carrey.
Eric Charbonneau

America isn't sure what to make of Pussy Riot. The Russian protest group disguised as a band appears to fit a mold that we think we invented - the rock & roll riot grrl - but the women refuse to play along. To them, rebellion is serious business.

Sunday night, director Roland Emmerich hosted a welcome dinner at his restaurant Acabar to celebrate Pussy Riot's Maria Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova's first day in Hollywood, where they're raising money for their prisoners' rights NGO, Zona Prava, and taking a few meetings with filmmakers interested in their life story. Jim Carrey, Lance Reddick, Jeff Goldblum, Glee's Chris Colfer and Boys Don't Cry director Kimberly Peirce were eager to introduce themselves to the pair, both released from prison just four and a half months ago. Still, neither woman laughed when guest Bill Maher quipped, "Even if you don't overthrow Putin, your career is going to be in great shape, and that's what matters in America." And they shouldn't have. After leading the rest of the room in a chant of "Fuck Putin," Maher capped off his speech with the condescending aside, "Any country that would make women this beautiful wear a mask over their head, that has to be a crime."

The extent to which Tolokonnikova's Angelina Jolie cheekbones have boosted Pussy Riot's media presence is best left unbroached lest one be shriveled by her disdain. Not that that seems to stop people from quietly dreaming about what a marketer could do if the two would just agree to cross-promote themselves with, say, a brand of expensive, eco-conscious shoes. Later, when someone rhetorically asked how she and Alyokhina had achieved so much at just 24 and 25, respectively, a guy at the next table whispered, "She's hot."

In turn, Pussy Riot isn't sure what to make of America. Instead of glad-handing the room, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were reserved and direct, fielding questions about Ukraine, Putin and the Russian prison system with thorough, thoughtful, un-sound-bite-able answers. In February, the two women were pepper-sprayed and whipped by Cossacks in Sochi. Exactly a month ago, they were beaten outside a McDonald's in Nizhny Novgorod. Now they're in the States swinging by The Today Show and meeting with Shepard Fairey. As though wary of appearing to enjoy the Champagne and sunshine, they remained polite and unsmiling. Even so, they couldn't win. A disgruntled man who'd earlier dickered with the head of Cinema for Peace for boasting that California was liberal muttered, "They're very slick."

Pussy Riot seem to be facing a problem of comprehension. Not literally - Tolokonnikova's English-fluent husband Pyotr Verzilov, who holds a Canadian passport, deftly translated the evening. But among the attendees, there seems to be a subconscious blindness that these two women who look and act so modern have suffered such medieval horrors. During the meal, Tolokonnikova stood and read a letter describing what she witnessed in prison: a Gypsy woman beaten to death, a second woman stabbed in the head with a pair of scissors, a third who tried to cut open her own stomach with a hacksaw. She and Alyokhina were hit repeatedly in the kidneys and went on hunger strikes. After a few paragraphs, she paused as though it was hard to continue. Several voices in the audience encouraged her to stop. For her sake or theirs? In line for the restroom, a woman a few paces ahead of Tolokonnikova bemoaned that today, the first day she'd worn sandals all year, she'd broken a toenail. Then she hastily added, "Not that that's anything to complain about."

Given their fame, it's striking to remember that Pussy Riot had performed only five times in four months before Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were arrested. Imagine if Kathleen Hanna was abruptly invited to the U.N. after Bikini Kill released its first EP. Like Occupy Wall Street, they were just forming their message when the world handed them a microphone. As such, they're against everything - sexism, stolen elections, homophobia, oppression from the Orthodox Church, abusive prisons, and all things Putin - which leads people to either dismiss them as media-savvy dilettantes or expect them to heal the planet.

A Russian woman asked pointedly if they'd ever been paid for their work. (No.) Then a California man asked how they planned to solve America's overcrowded prison problem during their trip. Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova replied that they'd already visited Rikers in New York, met with an art-centered penal rehabilitation group, and discussed their inmates' rights NGO. It was a patient, inspiring answer, but you almost wanted them to say, "Hey, what are you going to do about your prisons?" Finally, Alyokhina sighed, "It's very simple. You just need a balaclava, a colored dress and political oppression. ... If you don't want your graffiti artists being put in jail, you should speak out about by writing a song about it."

 

So far, Americans haven't taken up the neon tights. (Though how great it'd be if some angry girls would storm conservative pastor John Hagee's mega-church in San Antonio to protest Texas' restrictive new abortion laws.) Instead, Americans prefer cameras. Pussy Riot has been the star of two documentaries: HBO's Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer and more raw Pussy Riot vs. Putin. During their short California trip, they're meeting with a handful of filmmakers about a third, more fictional film. "We see it more like V for Vendetta," says Tolokonnikova's husband, Verzilov, "a story of a revolution."

"I really believe that movies can do a lot, but it's a more immediate problem," counters the evening's host, Roland Emmerich, who learned about Pussy Riot early on while reading his native Der Spiegel. "By the time a movie is done, it's one and a half years." He sees the women as funny but troublingly prescient provocateurs who need to be heard now. "If you would have lived in the 1930s of the last century, some people ran around the world saying, 'There's something going on in Germany, I think you should take it serious,'" says Emmerich. "I think they are these people, so we have to for sure take them serious."

If Pussy Riot are a political group costumed as entertainers, Emmerich is an entertainer who likes to root his popcorn flicks in politics. Both love high-drama imagery. Pussy Riot once stormed Red Square brandishing a flag; Emmerich's last film, White House Down, ends with a patriotic young girl on the front lawn of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. taking back her country by waving the Stars & Stripes. Does he see a parallel? "Oh, no no," Emmerich laughs.

But others wouldn't let him off the hook so easily. Before the night ended, a Russian man grabbed the microphone and half-joked, "Roland, you blew up the American White House. Did you know in Moscow, there is also a White House?" 


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