Pussy Riot Sundance Documentary an Impressive Look at Courage on Trial

PussyRiot

On September 24, 2011, then-President of Russia, Dmitri Medvedev nominated Vladimir Putin to be the United Russia Party’s nominee for President in the 2012 elections. That action caused a little-known performance artist, Nadezhda (Nadia) Tolokonnikova to create the punk/feminist art collective called Pussy Riot. The all-female group performed spontaneous punk performances all around Moscow wearing colorful balaclavas to cover their faces, popping up in shops and in public squares yelling out lyrics such as “Putin Pisses Himself!” But it wasn’t until their guerilla performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior that they actually got real attention due mostly to the arrest of three of their members. Pussy Riot had performed their protest music and actions before… in a hair salon and on Red Square, for example, but when they did it in the Cathedral, the authorities could detain them with the support of the religious Orthodox church community and tried to make it look like it wasn’t about their politics.

In the documentary, Pussy Riot–A Punk Prayer, which just premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, we see how a small group of women who are tired and angry about Putin’s autocratic hold on their country used protest art to test the limits of free speech in Russia. While they, unfortunately, found out what that limit is, through their eloquence and courage they also have shined a light on the hypocrisy of so-called democratic Russia. The purpose of their February 21, 2012 arrest may have been to intimidate those who want to protest Putin, in actuality the trial of Pussy Riot has shined a light on the grip Putin and his cronies have on Russian society.

A good documentary has good “casting,” meaning that the main characters are compelling to watch on screen. In their film, directors Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin have three compelling main characters in the three young women on trial. In addition to Nadia, Maria (Masha) Alyokhina and Yekaterina (Katia) Samutsevich are bright and determined and their eloquence in interviews and at trial bring a depth of understanding to their motivations. While all three are strong personalities, Nadia is clearly the star of the film. She not only has the looks of Hollywood starlet, but it is clear that she is the intellectual force behind the reason and actions of Pussy Riot. One of the leaders of the Cathedral who supports their arrest remarks that Nadia is dangerous… she is a “Demon with a Brain,” he explains.

With their protest on the altar of the Cathedral, Pussy Riot intended to protest the coziness of the Orthodox Church and the Putin regime, but it allowed authorities to detain them on charges of religious hatred and hooliganism, turning the act into an attack on the Church. So while the trial of the three women gained sympathy for their cause around the world, in Russia they are not viewed positively by most. The witnesses against them were mostly members of the church who claimed personal harm by the 45 second Pussy Riot performance.

The trial footage shows the savvy defiance of the three defendants in the face of an absurd process. They challenge the judge and prosecutors, demonstrating again and again that it is Putin’s Russia that is really on trial. There is some remarkable footage of the three women talking amongst themselves in the defendant’s “cage” where they discuss the process, but also their concerns about their families and children. In one scene they are told to stop talking to each other by an officer of the court, when they repeatedly ask why, they are just told again and again to be silent, as they just shake their heads, smirking at the incredulous situation.

As the trial continues, the women start to learn that their plight has gotten international attention, including Madonna showing her support at a Moscow concert. With their closing statements, Nadia, Masha and Katia turn the tables on the court, with words as eloquent as Thoreau on unjust laws and the need to protest them. The fact they are found guilty is expected by them, and the court obliges with two years in a labor camp as their sentence. Despite the harsh verdict, the women hold their heads high and as supporters cheer them on as they are brought to prison, they still look determined and defiant. While Katia later has her sentence suspended on appeal, Nadia and Masha are still jailed, though still working on their appeal.

It is impressive that the filmmakers were able to start and complete this documentary in less than a year. In short notice, they have produced a documentary that beautifully demonstrates that there are courageous people willing to use their art, and their lives, to shine a light on injustice. The brilliance of the film is that almost all of the dialogue comes from the accused (and their families) and their accusers. It is through the words of both sides that it becomes clear that while the women of Pussy Riot may be the ones technically on trial, it is the Russian system that is really under scrutiny… and in the eyes of those who are paying attention, it is obvious as to which side is in the right.

NOTE: Pussy Riot — A Punk Prayer was bought by HBO Films

Pussy Riot’s outlaw performance at the Moscow Cathedral