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Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer: Sundance Review

Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer

The Bottom Line

A rough DIY style doesn’t obscure the significance of this very timely documentary.

Venue

Sundance Film Festival, World Cinema Documentary Competition

Directors

Mike Lerner, Maxim Pozdorovkin

A Russian feminist punk-rock band illegally performs in a Moscow cathedral, upending national political discourse.

PARK CITY – When a strange, low-fi viral video popped up online last February depicting four women in colorful knitted ski masks engaged in a dramatically brief punk-rock performance inside a Moscow church, few people even within the confines of the city realized that this was only the latest public protest by the all-female Russian punk band and performance collective called Pussy Riot.

Much like the DIY aesthetic that prompted formation of the group, Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s documentary tracking the women's fate and the cultural convulsions that develop in Russia and ripple out worldwide following the group’s performance displays an endearing scrappiness and commitment to speak truth to power. Given the film’s viral-video genesis, online or cable VOD will likely beckon.  

PHOTOS: The Scene in Park City

In the shaky, handheld 40-second video shot inside the Russian Orthodox Christ the Savior cathedral last February, it was difficult to make out exactly what was going on, as five women clad in boots, dresses and tights, wearing brightly colored balaclavas, rushed the church’s altar with microphones, speakers and a guitar to begin belting out an abrasive “punk prayer.” Within seconds, security personnel rushed the altar and began dragging the women off as parishioners fled the church.

As their very public protest started blowing up on social media, three Pussy Riot members were arrested and charged with “hooliganism” (two others reportedly fled the country to avoid authorities), although the audacity of their performance and the passionate responses it engendered tended to obscure the feminist art collective’s origins and motivations. Formed in 2011 as a response to the reelection of Russian President and former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, the group of approximately a dozen women takes its cues not only from feminist politics and riot grrl punk rock, but also from conceptual and performance art – two genres entirely unfamiliar to most Russians.

With lyrics like “Kill all conformists/Kill all Putinists,” the band’s first few public protest performances focused on opposition to the Russian leader and his “excessive nationalism.” The cathedral event was a continuation of these anti-government demonstrations, intended to highlight the cozy relationship between Putin and the nation’s Orthodox hierarchy, as well as a perceived lack of separation between church and state. In staging their protest on holy ground, Pussy Riot members Nadezhda (Nadia) Tolokonnikova, Maria (Masha) Alyokhina and Yekaterina (Katia) Samutsevich hit a raw nerve in Russian society when they appeared to disrespect an institution that was long persecuted under Soviet dominance.

VIDEO: THR's Sundance 2013 Diaries

Public opposition inflamed by religious fervor quickly sprung up against the women and the Pussy Riot group, overwhelming scattered solidarity from the defendants’ families and sympathetic citizens. Denied bail, the women pled not guilty to the charges and were tried and sentenced to two-year penal colony terms by a Moscow court, although Samutsevich’s conviction was overturned on appeal.

Although support for the women and Pussy Riot’s protest messages was anemic in Russia at first, solidarity mushroomed internationally, with Amnesty International designating the women as prisoners of conscience. When Madonna was criticized for speaking out about the trio’s imprisonment with “Pussy Riot” emblazoned on her naked back at a Moscow concert, Russians finally began to realize that the issue had gone global, exposing the contradictions of their nation’s political and judicial systems.

Inspired by the women's punk perspective and recognizing the voice of his generation publicly validated, Pozdorovkin together with Lerner gained considerable access to the defendants’ families with in-depth interviews, as well as surprising and extensive court footage of the trial and appeal. Combining these segments with gritty footage of Pussy Riot videos and performances, news footage of Putin and church officials, and archival black-and-white clips recapping the Soviet era’s repression of dissent yields a DIY aesthetic well-attuned to Pussy Riot’s own POV.

With less than a year to pull the film together, the directors rely extensively on the well-edited courtroom footage, which is unfortunately of varying quality and constitutes close to half of the film’s total running time. Scenes of passionate protestors from both sides of the issue verbally clashing in Moscow’s streets lend the film a visceral immediacy, but much of the self-produced Pussy Riot video -- perhaps understandably – is of marginal quality, since these are, after all, performance artists rather than professional filmmakers.

Contextualizing commentary from anyone not directly connected with the three women is mostly lacking, as is analysis of the role of conceptual art in Russian culture or the musical influences contributing to the group’s exceedingly raw performance style. Despite some shortcomings, Pussy Riot remains a significant contribution to the ongoing dialogue assessing the current state of Russian society and culture, as well as the sometimes tenuous status of free speech in the free world.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, World Cinema Documentary Competition

Production company: Roast Beef Productions

Directors: Mike Lerner, Maxim Pozdorovkin

Producers: Mike Lerner, Maxim Pozdorovkin

Executive Producers: Martin Herring, Havana Marking, Maxyne Franklin, Nick Fraser, Kate Townsend, Nick Quested, Christina Willoughby

Director of photography: Antonyy Butts

Music: Simon Russell, Pussy Riot

Editor: Esteban Uyarra

Sales: Cinetic Media

No Rating, 86 minutes