Reviewing Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

“Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it”, reads the Bertolt Brecht quote in the film’s opening sequence. A fitting statement. Brecht, a German poet, playwright and prominent Marxist among other things, was also an artist familiar with both state repression and the inner workings of a courtroom. Fleeing Nazi Germany only to find himself in the heightened nationalist fervor of America’s Cold War era, Brecht was questioned by the House of Un-American Activities, and was the eleventh member of the “Hollywood Ten” who originally refused to testify, but changed his mind. Appearing in court in overalls and puffing a cigar, Brecht was questioned about his ties to Soviet Russia and the Communist party, but managed throughout the questioning, to literally lose his adversaries in translation. Fast forward to today, and the Russia Brecht was questioned about is a different one. Only not entirely.

The first thing you need to know about Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, is that this isn’t a documentary about Pussy Riot. It’s not a documentary about feminism or even post-Soviet politics of Russia under Putin. It only kind of is. In fact, this is a story about disruption. It is a story about what happens when a group of people – in this case, young women – contest the political status quo in a repressive environment; it is a film about what happens when you cast a stone in to a pond. It is about disruption; it is a vivid examination in to what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. Both the force and object could have been anything really; the stage could have been set anywhere, and perhaps the ideological drivers could have been anything, held by anyone. And that is perhaps the universality of the message this documentary tries to deliver in the span of 90 minutes.

Don’t get me wrong. As a story detailing the evolution of Pussy Riot and the trial of its activists, it is a compelling one. The viewer gets to see a hint of what made these young women do what they did; their evolution as people with deep seeded concern for their country – or at least their beliefs – and the trial that landed them behind bars and made them international icons. We are also offered a superficial examination of the conflicting nature of Russia’s state of secularism post-Soviet era, and their entanglement in the Putin era. We get to see a collision of authoritarianism, religious zealotry, judicial failings, and performance art rendered massive public interruption. We see all this, at least on the surface, but in actuality, there’s a lot that’s going on that we don’t really get a grasp of until it’s over. How these women managed to put their agenda not only on the national stage, but under a giant international spotlight, is nothing short of brilliance.

Pussy Riot

When they “riot”, you get the sense that there’s a subtle public intervention happening behind their brightly colored balaclavas; an infusion of bad punk music and controversial lyrics providing the veneer for something much deeper that got people talking. It’s obviously not about the music for these 20-something year olds; it’s about the message. And even if the majority don’t agree with the message, it is being screamed in their face, forcing them to deal with it as a people; as a religious institution; as a government. It’s a reminder that little progress has ever come to any society without the participation of those who live on its fringes; those who occupy the spaces so far beyond the beltway that they force us to question the very nature of it; force us to be active practitioners rather than passive observers.

Pussy Riot doesn’t get all the credit though. Their disruption of – what comes off as the very fragile intersection of religion and political authoritarianism – is enough to enrage the system, with an emboldened state prosecuting the activists for a Cathedral performance in 2012 that landed them behind bars. The documentary floats between the court case and its inevitable verdict, and the bits and pieces offered up by their loved ones and their enemies, that inherently puts a human face on the activists without being sentimental.

If the film leaves you with at least one impression it is that something is happening in Russia. Whether Pussy Riot is a chapter in this fast approaching history or merely a footnote, we won’t really know until it’s happened. What we do know is that they – Pussy Riot – have cast a sizable stone in to this murky pond. Just how far the ripples extend is something left for the historians. But this film is a decent documentation of that unfolding process.

Watch the Trailer.

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