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Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer featured image

Documentary feature directed by Mike Lerner & Maxim Pozdorovkin

With: Nadezhda “Nadia” Tolokonnikova, Maria “Masha” Alyokhina, Yekaterina “Katia” Samutsevich, Stanislav Samutsevich, Andrey Tolokonnikov, Peter Verzilov, Mark Feygin, Nikolai Polozov

We’re nearing the second anniversary of a signal event in contemporary Russia. It was on February 21, 2012 that a group of young women dressed in outrageous gear and wearing balaklavas to conceal their faces took over the religious platform of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior and sang their punk prayer “Mother of God, Chase Putin away.” It was the performance that turned a relatively new and obscure feminist art band, Pussy Riot, into an internationally renowned guerrilla group—and a human rights cause célèbre.

The timing is perfect for the release of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, a film that documents the story of Pussy Riot’s insurrectionary acts and outrageous trial. Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s feature documentary offers a faithful account of what happened to the three arrested members of Pussy Riot after the Russian police caught them. The trio were denied bail and eventually stood trial for acts of “hooliganism” in July. Their trial, shown in detail in the film, was clearly weighted against the three women, Nadezhda “Nadia” Tolokonnikova, Maria “Masha” Alyokhina and Yekaterina “Katia” Samutsevich. They were sentenced to two years in jail—for performing a punk song in a church, nothing else—in August.

Although Lerner and Pozdorovkin never got a chance to interview the trio, the viewer does get a good sense of who they are from their demeanour and statements during the trial. The documentarians did interview the fathers of two of the young women and the mother of the other so a clear picture of who they are emerges.

Nadia, charismatic and beautiful, is clearly a leader; she is denounced as a demon and a witch by Orthodox Catholic priests over the course of the film. She is married to Peter Verzilov, a dual citizen of Canada and Russia, who is the only native Russian to speak English in the film. Nadia’s father, Andrey, is interviewed throughout the doc; like Peter, he is an intellectual and supportive of her cause and sometimes outrageous actions. Through photos and videos, one can trace her radicalization–and she is remarkably articulate throughout the trial. (Nadia has permanent residence status in Canada; the mind reels that she and Peter might move here some day).

Masha regards herself as a Conceptual artist and, like Nadia, is a mother. We get less of a sense of her background but she too is quite articulate throughout the trial. Katia was raised by art-loving parents, who embraced early Soviet culture (before Stalin destroyed its avant-garde aspects). She seems slightly different from the other two, who are younger and more flamboyant.

Opposing the Pussy Riot girls are Putin, whom they hate, and the Orthodox Church, which does have a complicated relationship to the Russian establishment. Without overly dwelling on history, the documentarians remind viewers that the iconic Cathedral of Christ the Savior was destroyed by the Bosheviks and only rebuilt after perestroika. The state’s embrace of the Church is a recent phenomenon, which may account for the fervor and anger expressed towards Pussy Riot for their denunciation of Putin’s close relationship to the Orthodoxy’s Patriarch.

Lerner and Pozdorovkin show that Madonna, Yoko Ono and many other Western artists have embraced Pussy Riot and its democratic agenda. The group’s protests and their “show trial,” so reminiscent of the wild miscarriages of justice performed by Stalinist Russian in the late 1930s, has ensured that Putin and his regime have been exposed as totalitarian—not democratic at all. They’ve also made Pussy Riot international stars.

The film doesn’t include the most recent news: the release of Nadia and Masha just before the Olympic games—and their withdrawal from Pussy Riot to pursue justice for Russian prisoners. (As shown in the film, Katia had been released earlier on a technicality).

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is a provisional report on an on-going story. Who would bet against the anonymous members of the group eventually toppling Putin’s corrupt authoritarian regime? Stranger things have happened. This is a solid, workmanlike documentary on a fascinating subject. It would be great to see it being supported by the public.

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