Festivals / Reviews

East End Film Festival 2013: ‘Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer’ (2013, dir. Mike Lerner & Maxim Pozdorovkin, Russia/UK)

Pussy Riot

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
Directed by Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin
Russia/UK, 2013

During the infamous trial proceedings for their apparent ‘hooliganism’, the Pussy Riot girls make it abundantly clear that the entire world is watching; furthermore, the world is not stupid, and is aware of the extent to which the Russian judicial system operates utterly beyond reproach – as evidenced by their conviction. The entire process is exposed as a bare-faced sham, borne of the unholy union between church and state that has kept President Vladimir Putin safeguarded from the vilification for which the group face jail time. It’s therefore a stone-cold fact to  ‘anyone with half a brain’ – to borrow a phrase from the girls’ attorney – that Pussy Riot are entirely innocent of any wrongdoing, which begs the question of why this documentary, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, has much need to exist at all.

Aside from preaching to the choir, Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s film aims to compile a compelling case to the naysayers of why Pussy Riot are in the clear, courtesy of court-read statements from the girls themselves. What’s peculiar is that the people most in need of convincing were, in fact, already present in the courtroom. It’s nevertheless an interesting insight to see the process of the trial, and flabbergasting to watch well-constructed moral arguments fall on the deaf ears of those who, from the outset, appear perfectly reasonable.

So what’s really going on here? Lerner and Pozdorovkin throw in as much contextualisation as they can, from the backgrounds of each of the group’s core three members – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich – to the storied history of the Bolshevik’s abolition of the church and the post-Soviet enthusiasm for its reintegration with the state. The pieces of the past are paramount; outside of the trial footage, there’s little else the girls are legally allowed to share with the filmmakers. Instead, it falls to their parents and partners to fill in the blanks, explain group motivations and express their hopes and fears for the future.

“Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it.” This Bertolt Brecht quote that begins the film effectively sets the battleground upon which Pussy Riot fire the warning shot, bringing a flock of offended ‘victims’ out of the woodwork, armed with harsher, easier weapons to wield than art: the rule of law, religion, and sheer malleable language. The film makes it known that the people of Russia don’t quite understand the punk ethos in the same way as the Western world. In any case, they certainly weren’t ready for the caustic, disjointed non-melody of “Putin Pissed Himself.” Following the group’s cathedral stunt that finally leads to their arrest, an opposing tribe consisting of bearded orthodox patriarchs wastes no time in rallying up a mob mentality, equating the women to 16th century witch suspects, as demons ready to be barbequed.

Pussy Riot’s artful weapon was doomed to unintentionally give rise to this conformist racket, gathered under a banner of misguided disgust, blinded to the indignities of the state and its influence over the church. Declaring war was a mighty brave and admirable thing for these young women to do, though it was always going to be received as a fleck of phlegm in the face of a Goliath with many heads. This documentary is aptly subtitled A Punk Prayer, referencing the group’s feminist pleas to the ‘Mother of God’. It could hardly be called anything different; not abrasive enough to bolster the group’s arsenal, but polite and neatly succinct in its re-affirming of the group’s core principles against their nonsensical opponents. It is a quiet, albeit persuasive prayer; a nudge of the elbow, if not a call to arms.

Read the full entry at Sound on Sight.

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