Defiance

01.26.13

Sundance’s Best Documentary: ‘Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer’

The film, which just debuted at Park City, chronicles the rise of the Russian feminist punk-rock collective, their outspoken defiance of Putin, and shocking imprisonment.

“Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it.”

The documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer opens with this quote by the futurist Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. It couldn’t be more fitting. Directed by Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, the film traces the history of the feminist punk-rock collective Pussy Riot. Formed in August 2011, on the day Vladimir Putin returned to Russian presidential politics, the group is comprised of 11 rotating female members who don colorful balaclavas and stage guerrilla-style protest performances in very public sites around their native Moscow and post videos of them to YouTube. The balaclavas are an ode to the punk group Guerrilla Girls, but also from the paintings of Kazimir Malevich, whose later Suprematist works are in colorful shapes. The ladies’ frenetic, lo-fi, riot grrrl punk anthems touch on feminism, gay rights, and anti-Putin obloquies. The chorus to their tune “Kill All Sexists” goes: KILL ALL SEXISTS! KILL ALL EXTREMISTS! KILL ALL PUTINITES!

On Feb. 21, 2012, five Pussy Riot members staged an unauthorized performance on the soleas of Cathedral of Christ the Savior, an Orthodox church in Moscow. The gig, which consisted of the women mock-praying and taking swipes at Putin, lasted all of 40 seconds before it was broken up by security officers. A music video of the performance was uploaded to YouTube with the title, “Punk Prayer—Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!"

“This cathedral symbolizes the union of church and state; this is not how it should be,” says member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in the film. She argues that women should be allowed to hold church services and stand at the altar, for “She is not sinful.”

A few weeks later, three members—Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich—were arrested by Russian authorities and charged with “hooliganism,” while two others reportedly fled the country. The case made headlines around the world, with many advocating for the women citing freedom of expression.

On Aug. 17, the trio were convicted and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. Following an appeal, Samutsevich’s sentence was suspended, because a security guard tackled her before she could even participate in the performance, while the other two women’s sentences were upheld.

Filmmakers Lerner and Pozdorovkin started shooting Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer in March, just prior to the trial, and finished on Oct. 10, leaving them only two months to edit the film in time for the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it made its premiere. Since Pussy Riot was steeped in performance art, there was a wealth of self-shot footage available—including their cathedral tune-up session. Plus, the Russian government decided to film the trial with as many as five cameras, which proved a godsend for the filmmakers. But what really attracted them to the curious case of Pussy Riot was its universality.

“It’s not only a film about Russia; it’s about all of us,” Lerner told The Daily Beast. “It’s about the allowable limits of free expression. We have similar issues in this country, with the Occupy Movement. It’s about pushing the boundaries of allowable dissent, and when you cross that boundary, you get a very severe reaction.”

To gain the women’s trust, the filmmakers began communicating with the group through their lawyers; once Samutsevich was released, they befriended her, too. According to Pozdorovkin, they all shared a love of punk rock and avant-garde art. Samutsevich also taught them quite a bit about the feminist history of Russia.

“From 1905-1917, there was a huge wave of feminism in the Soviet Union,” said Pozdorovkin. “The country became the first place for women to vote, divorce, have abortions—with the exception of Australia. But it never had a second wave of feminism, like America did in the ’60s and ’70s. And now, it’s a very patriarchal society thanks in part to leaders like Putin.”

The documentary not only chronicles Pussy Riot and its raging Orthodox Christian detractors, including a group of scary Hell’s Angels-types donning “Orthodoxy or Death” shirts, but also explores the backgrounds of the main three members, sans balaclavas.

Tolokonnikova—or “Nadya”—comes off as the group’s de facto ringleader. Prior to Pussy Riot, the 23-year-old was a member of the renegade Russian performance-art group Voina and, while eight months’ pregnant, even participated in a public orgy—captured on film and posted to YouTube—in Moscow’s Biological Museum. Alyokhina—or “Masha”—grew up loving the Spice Girls and later attended university, studying journalism, falling in with Pussy Riot after becoming enraged over what they have dubbed an “Orthodox jihad” that’s enveloping Russian society. And then there’s Samutsevich—or “Katya”—who was also once a member of Voina. All three are not only well-educated, but come off as eloquent and witty, especially during the trial’s closing statements. 

A few days ago, the two still-shackled members of Pussy Riot—Nadya and Masha—gave an interview to the Russian press, saying they have “no regrets” over their actions. During the film’s post-screening Q&A, Katya called in via Skype to elaborate on their position, stating: “No, we don’t feel like we deserved any punishment. It was an act of feminist art and should be treated as such.” And, as far as the future of Pussy Riot is concerned, don’t go about expecting an album deal and tour any time soon. “We’re probably not going to change our general approach—one of actionism,” Katya added.

Today, women in Russia are treated like second-class citizens. They are fired from their jobs far more often than men, including by employers looking to avoid paying for child-care benefits or granting maternity leave, activists say. They’re also paid considerably less than their male counterparts. Women’s employment problems got so bad that, in 1995, more than 70 percent of the unemployed in Russia were women, who also constituted an estimated 94 percent of single-parent families. 

“Pussy Riot are a wake-up call,” said Lerner. “They are the beginning of a new feminist revolution in Russia, and one really hopes that they inspire others around the world to take those ideas and say, ‘Why the fuck not? The time has come.’”