Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
    • WEDNESDAY, JUNE 12, 2013

    • Posted by: Dorit Finkel

    Pussy Riot is back. The grassroots Russian feminist group has been in the world spotlight for the past year and a half, following the arrest, highly publicized trial, and two-year sentence of three members for a musical protest in a Russian Orthodox cathedral in which they shouted "Shit! Shit! It's holy shit!" Why the public uproar in their home country? What were these women hoping to accomplish? And what is the future of anti-establishment art in Russia? The new HBO documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, directed by Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, seeks to answer these questions.



    The incisive documentary provides up-close and personal looks into the lives of Nadia Tolokonnikova, Masha Alyokhina, and Katya Samutsevich through interviews with their families, footage from their childhoods, and recordings of their conversations together from inside the small courtroom cage they occupy for most of the film. Nadia takes on the role of the edgy, charismatic leader of the group, daring the public to defy her fierce and uncompromising femininity. The early showing of footage from Nadia's controversial orgy performance at a biology museum sets the tone for the public perception of the woman that a group of religious men opposing Pussy Riot call "a demon with a brain." Masha plays the gentler role of the outraged mother, challenging the judges at every turn and emphasizing that her greatest concern is her child's welfare, while Katya, the eldest of the three, is shown as both a mother figure to the group and somewhat of a loner; the fact that her performance at the church was cut short by the police actually grants her the most lenient sentence of the three. At once touching and outrageous, their punk movement as captured on film pulls you in, makes you feel a part of the political chaos of the country, and inspires you to call out injustice.



    The film flits in and out of the delicate subject of Russia's religious history, emphasizing that part of what's at play in the church's near-militant reaction is the history of religious oppression in the communist state. The very history of the protest site, Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour - a strong symbol of religious life, demolished by Stalin's government in 1931 and finally rebuilt in the 1990s - gives us context for the emotional reaction of the largely elderly congregants who were present at the demonstration. On the other hand, the collusion between Vladmir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church is infamous and problematic, and could certainly be exposed and discussed more than it was in the documentary. Of course, there is only so much one can cover in 80 minutes, but as it is, "Putin" is presented as an amorphous entity, representative of all the views the members of Pussy Riot oppose. Since the real story here is Russian politics, surely the issues themselves merit some more screen time.

    The most upsetting material, though, is the intensely personal footage of the courtroom drama. The judges make use of their unchecked power, often attempting to intimidate and cut off the members of Pussy Riot as they speak and ignoring various requests and appeals. I felt appropriately exhausted as I watched the uphill battle the women and their supporters fought against the conservative religious government and their brutal police force. Throughout, the viewer is pulled between the frustrating misunderstandings of the political right, and the frustrated protestations of a political left that just wants to move on.

    The world's response to the Pussy Riot trials has been interesting to watch, especially when it comes to the music industry. The film highlights support from Amnesty International, Madonna, Bjork, and Peaches (her uninspiring song, "Free Pussy Riot," is featured several times), as well as worldwide demonstrations in which protesters show solidarity by wearing their own versions of the now-famous neon balaclavas. But whether the world understands the true nature of the circumstances is unclear. As critics of the documentary are all too eager to point out, it's easy to paint this as a black-and-white, good vs. evil, brave colorful women vs. Big Bad Government story, and to voice your "support" from the comfort of home is not necessarily helping anyone understand.

    While the documentary is guilty of some skewed representations of the opposing side, I think it largely avoids presenting Pussy Riot as a slick name brand, Watchmen-worthy vigilantes, or even punk musicians. That's not what they are. As the movie points out, performance protest art is basically a new frontier in Russia; in a way, they're starting from scratch. Their government is comparatively new, and they're still pushing up against it to test the limits. The group has expressed many times that they have zero interest in the capitalist music scene, that they refuse to perform in a concert that costs money, and that it is the message and the method - not the music - that's important. "What Is Pussy Riot? It's a feminist punk group," says Nadia to the hordes of cameramen surrounding her cell in the film. "It's important for Russia's development. We need groups like this. It's just one of many groups that should appear. After all this attention, I hope others will do similar things."

    Whether Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer will reinforce some of the world's misunderstandings, painting the women as a political band just trying to put on concerts, or a group of blameless martyrs, or people who actually give a shit about the American music business, remains to be seen. What it does accomplish is give us solid insight into their backgrounds, their intentions, and their personalities, as well as a glimpse into the two sides of the argument. It's vital to view this film not as a music documentary, but as a portrait of a political climate. That being said, if you've got a punk soul and you want to join Pussy Riot in their quest, this documentary is a good place to start.



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