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Review: 'Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer'

Photo of Kevin Jagernauth By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist June 10, 2013 at 5:58PM

"Free Pussy Riot!" became a familiar rallying cry on social media throughout 2012. When five members of the feminist punk rock collective Pussy Riot enacted a guerilla performance of "Punk Prayer - Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!" in Moscow's biggest Orthodox Church, three of them were arrested and charged with hooliganism. Advocates for free speech rallied around the three girls, including celebrities like Madonna, Sting, Yoko Ono, Peaches and Bjork. The story took on a life of its own, traveling around the world, shining an unfavorable light on the justice system in Russia and Vladimir Putin's rule in particular. But this case was always about more than just some young punks, doing some bad things and directors Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin attempt to add some context with their film "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer."
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Pussy Riot

"Free Pussy Riot!" became a familiar rallying cry on social media throughout 2012. When five members of the feminist punk rock collective Pussy Riot enacted a guerilla performance of "Punk Prayer - Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!" in Moscow's biggest Orthodox Church, three of them were arrested and charged with hooliganism. Advocates for free speech rallied around the three girls, including celebrities like Madonna, Sting, Yoko Ono, Peaches and Bjork. The story took on a life of its own, traveling around the world, shining an unfavorable light on the justice system in Russia and Vladimir Putin's rule in particular. But this case was always about more than just some young punks, doing some bad things and directors Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin attempt to add some context with their film "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer."

Pussy Riot

Functioning as both a summary of the arrest, trial and appeal of Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich, and an investigative look into their history and their place in the cultural-political spectrum of contemporary Russia, the film is mostly a success. Going beyond the headlines, 'Punk Prayer' underscores that while Pussy Riot had already been gaining attention in the country for their incendiary performances targeting various political elements, it was only once they aimed directly at Vladimir Putin that the authorities got more involved. A month before the event that would get them arrested Pussy Riot hit Red Square and played "Putin Has Pissed Himself," calling for Russians to revolt against their government. Thus, when they hit the Orthodox church a month later, it's not all that surprising that some folks in the higher reaches of government wanted to make an example of them.

Whilst prosecutors pushed the theory that these girls were fuelled by religious hatred, the truth is that 'Punk Prayer' was just one more act in young lives already heavily dedicated to dissent. Prior to joining Pussy Riot, Nadezhda and Yekaterina were part of the political street-art/performance group Voina. Nadezhda in particular was already familiar with making headlines, having been one of the participants of the provocative action "Fuck for the Heir Puppy Bear," in which members of Voina engaged in public sex in Moscow's Timiryazev State Museum of Biology (she was four days away from giving birth at the time, adding another element to the eye-opening footage from that stunt included in the doc). Their families may not agree with their tactics, but they clearly support their message and actions (Nadia's father even takes credit for helping to inspire the chorus of 'Punk Prayer': "Shit! Shit! It's God shit!"); in short, protest is an act almost as crucial as breathing is in their lives.

Pussy Riot

Although the documentary excels at giving us a better picture of the women who are inspiring folks around the world to voice support for them, Lerner and Pozdorovkin leave many other details unexplored. Most crucially, it's not quite clear how Pussy Riot functions as a collective, how large the membership spans, what their philosophy is or what their plans are now that some members have been jailed (their last action was the release of the single "Putin Lights Up The Fires" last summer). A brief visit to their secret headquarters -- with every member wearing the iconic neon balaclavas -- is a missed opportunity to really dig into their objectives and beliefs. More could have been done to show how dramatically different the perception of Pussy Riot was within Russia (where there was little sympathy) to that in the rest of the world. The filmmakers mostly focus on the fringe reactions, with the inclusion of what seems to be little more than a tiny, radical group called Carriers of the Cross, while mainstream media sources mostly arrive in the form of a single talk show clip.

There is no doubt that Pussy Riot crossed a line of taste with 'Punk Prayer,' but that it resulted in the kind of show trial that followed and a sentence of two years in prison, most would find excessive. What Lerner and Pozdorovkin make clear is that dissidence is a crucial factor in a functioning democracy, and as is repeated a few times in the documentary, attempting to suppress critical voices only gives them more power. While Pussy Riot grabbed attention for blistering punk songs and almost terrorist-like attire, their jail sentence may inadvertently be their biggest gig yet. From behind bars, they only continue to inspire voices calling for their freedom, and when they walk free next year, they may command a power that even Putin may no longer be able to silence. If anything, "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer" sets the stage for what will undoubtedly be a dramatic return. [B]

"Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer" airs on HBO tonight at 9 PM.

This article is related to: Reviews, Review


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