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Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

June 14, 2013  |  11:35am
<i>Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer</i>

A Russian band had broadcasters, journalists and pundits saying dirty word on television, but their story was on the nightly news for less-than-humorous reasons. Three members of the punk anarchic-feminist group Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, were in custody for dissenting. Several talking heads discussed their odds of ending up in labor camps and whether their rights were violated. Pop stars came out in support, decrying the artistic censorship.

More details emerged: the women were arrested after a disruptive pop-up performance in the middle of a Russian Orthodox service. Their trial ballooned into an international media circus. The band had successfully punctured holes into the façade of Vladimir Putin’s seemingly progressive Russia, exposing the brutality not shown in polite UN company and press conferences. It sounds like Stalin-era Russia, but these were today’s dates alongside those headlines.

How Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer plays into all this is rather understated. The audience is seated on the sidelines of packed court hearings that bounce from chaos to stunned silence in the face of the absurdity of the situation. For a charge of disturbing the peace, the three bandmates faced years in prison. Never mind their suffering families left outside, like Alyokhina’s daughter.

Each set of parents was interviewed—some were proud of their daughters, others were ashamed. A few outsiders offer their opinions, but for most of the movie the camera is a fly on the wall, eyeing the women fielding reporter’s questions from behind plexiglass holding cells. The camera never gets close enough.

A Punk Prayer does a decent job of filling the gap before the infamous show, interviewing their parents, recording group rehearsals (not all of Pussy Riot’s members are behind bars), but it leaves more to be desired. There could have been more interviews with the members of Pussy Riot who are carrying on the work, interviews with the lawyers on the case, and ideally, with the women who challenged Putin like no one had before. The documentary’s scope seems limited. For those unfamiliar with the case, it works to introduce the saga; for others, much of Prayer may feel like an unnecessary review.

Interestingly enough, the movie cuts around parts Westerners may not sympathize with, like the group’s anti-capitalist sentiments. But possibly the most glaring omission is the very women at the center of it all. Sure, they’re under police surveillance and probably not allowed to speak to the press, but this is the problem with documentaries that are rushed out to drum up support for their subjects. It’s very messy, sometimes one-sided, and in this case, the removes an integral story arc.

Overall, the Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is only half-complete. Two of the three women arrested remain in separate Soviet-era labor camps. The documentary lacks any sort of critical voice other than the crowds outside the courthouse shouting for the women to pay or to be absolved. How the story will end, what will be the political and social ramifications, and what will Pussy Riot’s place be in Russian history remains to be seen. The result is more PBS NewsHour than HBO special.

Director: Mike Lerner, Maxim Pozdorovkin
Writer: Rama Burshtein
Starring: Mariya Alyokhina, Ekaterina Samutsevich, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova
Release Date: June 10, 2013

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