PUSSY RIOT: A PUNK PRAYER (2013) – Documentary Retroview

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Singing Out Against Repression

Whether you’re a fan of punk music or not, you’ll have to concede that in both style and substance the punk rock movement has pushed hard against the forces of repression wherever they exist. And, sometimes — or quite often — the powerful forces of repression strike back in hideously unjust ways. Such is the case with Pussy Riot, a feminist punk rock band of performing artists who hail from and work in Moscow.

Pussy Riot staged their seemingly impromptu performances in public places, where passersby would be surprised to encounter their carefully choreographed and courageous challenges to ‘the system.’

Their work exposed what they considered to be political, social and cultural hypocrisies that kept Russian citizens entrapped in stultifyingly conformist patterns of behavior. Punk performances were Pussy Riot’s form of cultural rebellion and social activism.

They covered their faces with cloth, sang and chanted lyrics that were intended to offend (or enlighten) their conservative audiences and behaved provocatively.

All this was part of their artistic expression, exercising what they (and we) would call freedom of speech. If it stunned audiences, or if passersby didn’t like it, they could walk away. That was their freedom to choose.

Then one day Pussy Riot chose to perform on the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, using the holy sanctuary as a platform from which to call attention to the cozy symbiotic relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church — a relationship that sort of, in Pussy Riot’s opinion, reconstructed traditional Russian Orthodox beliefs and rites as the opiate of the masses, so to speak.

As a result of the performance — in fact almost as soon as it began — three members of Pussy Riot were dragged from the stage (or altar), arrested and hauled off to jail.

Documenting Pussy Riot’s Case

In Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, filmmakers Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin document the Pussy Riot trial, sentencing and appeals — a long and drawn out series of court procedurals, starring Pussy Riot members Nadia, Masha and Katia. Actually, the courtroom footage is quite gripping because Nadia, Masha and Katia, who sit incarcerated in a small booth, are extraordinarily articulate and reasonable, but completely unyielding in their assertion of their right to freedom of expression and uncompromising in their loyalty to each other. They are, to put it plainly, most impressive and courageous in their presentations.

In contrast, the court and prosecutors seem bound by bureaucracy, weak in their ability to counter reasonable arguments presented by the woman and their lawyers, and corrupted by their knowledge that they ultimately wield the power to decide the case.

Punk Rock Jail Birds

As you know it will, the trial results in a guilty verdict, and Nadia, Masha and Katia are sentenced to seven years in prison. Appeals ensue, and one of the women is released because she is able to prove — using footage shot the day of the performance and shown in this documentary — that she’d was, at the time of the arrest, still setting up her equipment, and hadn’t actually said, sung or done anything to ‘violate’ the alter. The release of Katja has been seen as something of a victory in the case, and in Pussy Riot’s social and political mission.

The Talent To Convince

The women of Pussy Riot are extremely talented, and they’re using their talent to try to change the way Russian citizens see things.

Elsewhere in the world, the talented group might easily ascend to punk stardom and their causes might be put on hold. The documentary shows, however, that Pussy Riot effectively used their trial as a platform. Their demeanor and comments during the trial and appeal have established them as popular heroines. Groups of organized fans around the world are protesting their incarceration, demanding their release and embracing their philosophy.

Insight Into Today’s Russia

While it focuses exclusively on the Pussy Riot case, the documentary provides valuable insight into the current way of life in contemporary Russia. Perhaps you can learn most about a country by seeing what people are protesting about and how their protests are responded to by those who are in power.

All in all, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is a fascinating, provocative, must-see documentary.

Film Details:

Title: Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
Directors: Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin
Broadcast Premiere date: June 10, 2013 (HBO)
Running time: 90 minutes
Production Country: Russia/UK
Language: Russian with English subtitles
Filming Location: Moscow, Russia
Production Company: Roast Beef Productions
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