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Review: Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

Amid all the Navalny news yesterday, I decided to hold off posting my latest Russia! Magazine column, “Pussy Riots on Film.” This week  I review Maxim Pozdorovkin’s and Mike Lerner’s HBO documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk PrayerHere’s a trailer followed by my opening paragraphs:

About two-thirds of the way through Maxim Pozdorovkin’s and Mike Lerner’s documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, the judge Marina Syrova scolds the courtroom. “People, let me remind you, this isn’t a theater.” Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Ekaterina Samutsevich were delivering their closing statements to resounding applause. Judge Syrova’s denial was really an affirmation. The trial was theater. In fact everything about Pussy Riot was theatrics, from their impromptu performances to their demeanor in court. The three young women weren’t the only performers. The defense and prosecution, Tolokonnikova’s husband Pyotr, the media, the adherents and detractors, and Pussy Riot’s international supporters, which included such legendary celebrities as Yoko Ono and Madonna, all played their roles in this drama. And so did Syrova. There she was on my TV screen serving as one of the antagonists in a film where three balaclava wearing feminists played the leading ladies.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is a good film. It’s an excellent primer for laymen unfamiliar with the Pussy Riot story. The documentary also gives something to those who followed the case. By allowing the narrative to unfold through the voices of its participants—Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, Samutsevich, their parents, their lawyers, Russian Orthodox patriots, etc — even the initiated viewer is treated to a good look into the personalities around the Pussy Riot phenomenon. From the disparate voices of their characters, Prozdorovkin and Lerner managed to craft a consumable narrative. Unfortunately lost in the simplicity are the real politics of Pussy Riot, especially their feminism, and the larger political context in which the group operates. In the end, Pussy Riot and their collective’s message is muted by the film’s effort to weave individual stories about Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, Samutsevich. While these three young women come across principled, poised, and provoking, in making the film mostly about them, Prozdorovkin and Lerner allow little screen time for Pussy Riot as a radical leftwing political art project. Ultimately, their “punk prayer” is framed as individual communions rather than a collective lament to the Holy Mother.

Read on . . .

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