PUSSY RIOT , A PUNK PRAYER directed by Mike Lerner & Maxim Pozdorovkin (Russia, 2012)
This HBO documentary follows the highly publicised show trial of Nadia, Masha and Katia, the three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot who were arrested for their part in the very public disruption of the holy mass at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in February 2002 and who were subsequently sentenced to three years in a penal colony.
The film opens with a quote from Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it” which immediately reassures us that it will be justifiably weighted in favour of the women’s cause. Interviews with their parents help us to understand their background to the protest while humanizing their stories.
In the interest of balance, however, the filmmakers also give ample space to the case for the prosecution. There are interviews with angry members of the church wearing T-shirts proclaiming ‘ORTHODOXY OR DEATH’ who look like greying doom metal fans.
One web site once took Pussy Riot to mean “an uprising of the uterus” but an offended worshipper states on film that “deranged vaginas” would be a more apt translation.
We eavesdrop on Orthodox christians discussing the women and Nadezhdha Tolokonnikova (Nadia) is singled out as the main threat. They describe her as “a demon with a brain”.
One of the prosecuting lawyers has the gall to imply that sentencing the women to imprisonment is the state’s way of protecting them from reprisals from the rabid mob who call themselves christians. Yeah, right!
Nadia’s striking looks and winning smile drew quite a different response from the Ukranian edition of Playboy who want her to appear as a centerfold. The idea that this unrepentant feminist agitator could be turned into a soft porn icon is itself a reflection of the kind of contradictory sterotyping women have to endure in Russia (and elsewhere) that Katia satirised in a poster design:
There is an element of farce to the court case, not least because it turns into an anarchic media circus. The women revel in the chaos and are unapologetic when interviewed or asked to make statements in their defence; justifying their actions with wit and intelligence. At the end of her statement, Nadia said defiantly: “we are freer than those who prosecute us”.
Their lawyer is only slightly more conciliatory. He argues that since the Russian legal system is secular the crime of blasphemy does not officially exist so they have no case to answer. He concedes that the women’s protest was sloppy and crude but was no more than a non violent expression of free speech.
Pussy Riot lyrics are not poetic or subtle, their musical prowess is non-existent and their costumes and dance routines are laughably amateurish. Nevertheless by the skillful use of social networks they have got their message out to the world and gained a powerful following.
All three women are now ‘free’, a fact which Putin and the State hope will draw a line under these events. However, the fact that this documentary looks likely to be nominated for an Oscar means the political embarrassment is far from over. The riot goes on.