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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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas