Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

By
Sophia Satchell Baeza,

Three photogenic young women in neon balaclavas pick up guitars and break into Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Howling an anti-Putin punk song with waving hands and stomping feet, they’re dragged out and sentenced to two years in prison. Suddenly, Madonna’s taking her top off in ode to them, and Sting is getting a bit emotional. Throw in some religious fundamentalists, a rather heated-up Putin, and some Riot grrrl for the 21st century, and you may have the ultimate example of the statement: ‘you couldn’t make this stuff up’. The story of how the leaderless feminist activist group Pussy Riot offended and enamoured a nation in equal measure is the subject of Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s slick HBO documentary, an entertaining if shallow exploration of a very modern revolution.

From the bright pink opening credits in faux-Cyrillic script, announcing the three members standing trial as “starring” in Punk Prayer, it’s clear that this film is going for a flavour of Revolution Lite. Lerner and Pozdorovkin mobilise the more media-aware aspects of the anarchist group, combining sharp editing and rapid cuts with Twitter tabs and standard TV sound effects. The film is well put together, but sadly misses some of the grit of similar subject documentaries, like Robert Stone’s Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (2005).

Shiny Apprentice-style establishing shots of Moscow and a neatly chronological narrative that begins several months before their arrest and ends after one of the members is freed confirms this as a fairly run-of-the-mill documentary format. This mostly works, as handheld cameras convey the immediacy of the action. Sometimes this gloss becomes distracting, as when we’re presented with light-drenched footage of some extended members rehearsing in hiding. Lerner and Pozdorovkin’s incredible access to the extended group, at times looks too shiny and staged to be real. Punk Prayer seems like a Westernised perspective on Pussy Riot. This is Asos Agitprop – made to order. 

Pussy Riot, from left to right: Yekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.

The most fascinating element arises when we encounter the far-right nationalist religious group, The Carriers of the Cross. Looking like a bunch of whacked-out Hells Angels, these weapon-wielding fundamentalists start talking about the photogenic ‘leader’ Tolokonnikova as “a demon with a brain”, who would have been hanged in the 16th century. One of them confesses that he has followed her on the internet (this seems a subtle reference to her involvement in the Voina art collective, and a performance in 2008 which incorporated real sex in the Biology Museum while she was 8 months pregnant). One of the Carriers is visibly heated: “you can tell by her lips, her mouth”. Methinks he fancieth her.

“Pussy is a devious word. It means kitten but also the uterus”, a Carrier observes, displaying some of their bangin’ insignia, like a heavy metal tee that says: “ORTHODOXY OR DEATH”. The film emphasises the power of language, of how a word to describe the female anatomy still has the power to offend.This is apparent in an interview with Putin in the film, where he observes that, ‘they made you say that word’. Pussy Riot belong to a tradition that includes Courtney Love’s band Hole, or songs like Kat Bjelland’s “Swamp Pussy”. Writing in 'Sex Revolts' (1989), an examination of rock misogyny and female rebellion, Simon Reynolds and Joy Press observe that “women’s proximity to bodily processes is both a source of dark power and a threat to identity” (264). In some sections of modern Russia, as elsewhere, this sort of rhetoric is still apparent.

Whether this film is what Pussy Riot would have wanted is hard to tell. Tolokonnikova has stated that "the only person who can legitimately represent the group is a girl in a balaclava”. Lacking the DIY aesthetics of the Riot Grrrl movement that’s informed them, it seems anybody but the girls in the balaclavas are representing them. Punk Prayer is an interesting film, but let’s see what happens when they’re finally released.

Follow Sophia on Twitter: @SophiaSB1
 

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