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Film review: PUSSY RIOT – A PUNK PRAYER, from Built For Speed

In February 2012, at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, various members of the balaclava-wearing Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot attempted to perform a song protesting the close relationship between the Russian Orthodox church and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The three main members of the group were quickly bundled out of the church and charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. To the casual observer the protests and the arrests were oddly comical; why, we asked, would Russian authorities concern themselves with what seemed to be a mildly provocative prank?

The straightforward but fascinating documentary, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer attempts to shed light on the protest, the Pussy Riot collective, the background of the three arrested members and the events surrounding the trial.  The film also chronicles the explosion of public outrage – on both sides of the debate – that followed the arrests.

For Pussy Riot and their supporters, the Cathedral protest was a legitimate piece of performance art designed to draw attention to what they saw as an oppressive Russian government and the dangerous collusion between church and state.  For them, the arrests and the trial – which at one point saw them in cages – were evidence of the oppressive and totalitarian nature of contemporary Russia.  The film even compares the group’s predicament to that of dissidents in the notorious Soviet show trials of the 1930’s.

The group’s opponents, however, were aghast at the performance.  This was partly because punk and performance art were unfamiliar in Russia’s but also because some saw the protest was an attack on the church that disturbingly echoed the suppression of religion that followed the Bolshevik revolution. Remarkably, both sides appeared to be reacting against the spectre of Stalinist oppression.  The protest and the trial have even led to violent clashes between Pussy Riot supporters and conservative religious groups.  In what may be selective editing one of the more prominently featured religious groups looks like a bikie gang and talks about burning the women like witches.

The film also shows that the arrests triggered a global response with numerous support groups posting tribute videos on YouTube and Madonna jumping on the bandwagon by wearing a balaclava and writing Pussy Riot on her back for a Moscow concert.

Disappointingly, the information the film provides about the size, structure and aspirations of the Pussy Riot movement is a little thin; admittedly, this may have been necessary for their protection.  There is, however, a suggestion that the movement was fuelled by post-Soviet job losses and economic uncertainty. Interestingly, the intensity of political belief and activism within the movement seems to vary greatly with some members simply wanting to make an artistic statement while others demand destruction of the Russian social and political order.

The three arrested women Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich come across as articulate and committed if occasionally smug political activists. When permitted to speak from their cages they deliver insightful polemic but also make it clear that they weren’t attacking religious faith or believers.  Tolokonnikova, the group’s very composed unofficial leader has a history on the fringes of the radical protest movement having once appeared in a simulated orgy art installation while pregnant. Her compatriot Samutsevich seems to have no other purpose in life than the group and its political activities.   Maria Alyokhina, however, seems more troubled than the others at the prospect of imprisonment as it means being separated from her son.

Interestingly, the film reveals the influence on the women’s beliefs of family members.  Tolokonnikova’s father supports her actions wholeheartedly (the naked orgy installation excepted) and even helped write some Pussy Riot song lyrics while Samutsevich’s beliefs were nurtured by a staunchly communist grandma.

The film has no narration and simply mixes news footage with hand-held camera recordings made by the band’s supporters in court.  This creates an oddly bland visual style, particularly given the radical nature of the film’s subject.  Admittedly, a more extravagant aesthetic may have undermined the feeling that we are watching an honest appraisal of the women’s predicament.

The documentary is about the protest and the trial and not about Pussy Riot as an aspiring band or even a substantial musical force but it does feature a few of their songs which are mostly a skuzzy but energetic mix of early 80’s hard-core punk and digital hard-core reminiscent of bands like Atari Teenage Riot.

While it’s a surprisingly prosaic film for such a radical subject, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer raises genuine concerns about political oppression and misguided justice in Russia.  It also provokes astonishment that people might be sent to Siberia for something that would qualify as a tame prank in a Jack Ass movie.

 

Nick’s rating: Three and a half stars.

Classification: R.

Director(s): Mike Lerner, Maxim Pozdorovkin.

Release date: 10th Oct 2013.

Running time:  88 mins.

 

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