By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Sundance Review: Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

One of the most culturally and politically relevant films to come out of Sundance this year, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer chronicles the controversial trial of three members of the anonymous Russian performance artists and political activists who call themselves Pussy Riot. Comprised of about a dozen young women who mask their faces with colorful balaclavas and stage stealth performances around Moscow, showing up when least expected in a beauty parlor or Red Square or on the rooftop of a building to raise their voices in protest of Russian president Vladimir Putin, the lack of separation between the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox church, and sexism within Russian society.

For a while, Putin’s government mostly ignored Pussy Riot, handing out the occasional administrative ticket but nothing more, as if hoping that these rebellious young women might just quietly go away. Then on February 21, 2012, five members of the group staged a performance of their church-state protest song “A Punk Prayer” on the alter of St. Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow. The group played about 30 seconds of their song before being shut down. Three of the members, Nadezhda (Nadia) Tolokonnikova, Maria (Masha) Alyokhina and Yekaterina (Katia) Samutsevich were arrested and charged with criminal charges, and were detained for six months before finally being put on trial, facing a courtroom full of “victims” – those who were at the church that day and were apparently traumatized by the sight of five young women wearing brightly colored balaclavas, baring their arms, and singing punk rock music on the altar of their church.

In Russia, contemporary art is often scorned and misunderstood, and performance art and punk rock practically unheard of. And in a place where the Russian Orthodox Church was persecuted under the reign of the Communists, sacrilege can be seen as a tremendous offense. When the members of Pussy Riot were first charged, there wasn’t a great deal of support inside Russia for these young activists. But as word got out that they were facing up to seven years in prison for singing 30 seconds of punk rock protest, a groundswell of support both inside Russia and around the world grew in support of their activism and their cause. Amnesty International got involved. International news media flocked to Moscow. Pussy Riot support groups sprung up, the little seeds of dissent planted by the young activists taking root and starting to sprout. Even Madonna painted “Pussy Riot” on her bare back and sang “Like a Virgin” while wearing a balaclava in her Moscow concert.

Cinematically speaking the film is, like the movement it captures, more than a little rough around the edges. There’s an awful lot of courtroom footage, so much so that it starts to drag a bit and feel like an extended episode of Court TV, but it’s still impressive that the filmmakers were able to get the access to shoot in there. The performance footage is most engaging, when we see the girls of Pussy Riot rehearsing and performing; it’s guerrilla activism, shot guerrilla style, and it’s just great that it was even captured for historical purposes, given that the Pussy Riot collective has become a big enough deal to be of note as one of the more relevant and effective activist groups of our time, along with Occupy. Interviews with the girls’ parents round things out nicely, giving us a broader perspective on who these young women are.

The real stars of the show here are Nadia, Katia and Masha, the three young women at the center of this story. While all three are articulate and have some interesting things to say, it’s clear that Nadia is the leader of the group. She has a fierceness to her, a sharpness of intellect, clearness of jaw, firmness in the stubborn set of her mouth, that lets you know she is not even close to done. The penultimate moment of the film is Nadia’s closing statement, in which she says in part:

This whole trial refuses to hear us and I mean hear us, which involves understanding and, moreover, thinking. I think every individual wants to attain wisdom, to be a philosopher, not just people who happen to have studied philosophy. That’s nothing. Formal education is nothing in itself and Lawyer Pavlova is constantly accusing us of not being sufficiently well-educated. I think though that the most important thing is the desire to know and to understand, and that’s something people can do for themselves outside of educational establishments, and the trappings of academic degrees don’t mean anything in this instance. Someone can have a vast fund of knowledge and for all that not be human.

You can read her full closing statement here, or you can find on YouTube in its entirety if you’re so inclined. It’s worth it.

In a scene where a group of male Russian Orthodox leaders are discussing the Pussy Riot performance at the cathedral, bemoaning in particular the dangerousness of the articulate Nadia, one of the men notes that she’s “a demon who thinks.” And so she is, and so are all of them.

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“I remember very much the iconography and the images and the statues in church were very emotional for me. Just the power of that, and even still — just seeing prayer card, what that image can evoke. I have a lot of friends that are involved in the esoteric, and I know some girls in New York that are also into the supernatural. I don’t feel that I have that gift. But I am leaning towards mysticism… Maybe men are more practical, maybe they don’t give into that as much… And then also, they don’t convene in the same way that women do. But I don’t know, I am not a man, I don’t want to speak for men. For me, I tend to gravitate towards people who are open to those kinds of things. And the idea for my film, White Echo, I guess stemmed from that — I find that the girls in New York are more credible. What is it about the way that they communicate their ideas with the supernatural that I find more credible? And that is where it began. All the characters are also based on friends of mine. I worked with Refinery29 on that film, and found that they really invest in you which is so rare in this industry.”
Chloë Sevigny

“The word I have fallen in love with lately is ‘Hellenic.’ Greek in its mythology. So while everyone is skewing towards the YouTube generation, here we are making two-and-a-half-hour movies and trying to buck the system. It’s become clear to me that we are never going to be a perfect fit with Hollywood; we will always be the renegade Texans running around trying to stir the pot. Really it’s not provocation for the sake of being provocative, but trying to make something that people fall in love with and has staying power. I think people are going to remember Dragged Across Concrete and these other movies decades from now. I do not believe that they will remember some of the stuff that big Hollywood has put out in the last couple of years. You’ve got to look at the independent space to find the movies that have been really special recently. Even though I don’t share the same world-view as some of my colleagues, I certainly respect the hell out of their movies which are way more fascinating than the stuff coming out of the studio system.”
~ Dallas Sonnier