Pussy Riot Packaged for an American TV Audience

by: Anastassia Smorodinskaya

June 18, 2013

It seems that everyone in the West, has a different reason for getting on the “Free Pussy Riot” bandwagon. Some say it’s a fight for freedom of speech, some rally in support of a global punk scene, some see their trial as an oppression of the feminist movement and some believe it to be artistic oppression. Indeed, the trial against the feminist/ performance artist members of the punk-activist girl group, Pussy Riot, is about all of those things—very much so, in fact, and the documentary addresses them in a commendable, comprehensive manner.

Pussy Riot HBO WILD mag music

However, there are two other very important reasons for which the trail against Masha, Katia and Nadia should call for public outrage–perhaps the most important reasons of all—and sadly, they receive little to no mentioned from Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, who co-directed and produced the critically acclaimed documentary, “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer.” But more on that later.

First, lets talk about why it works: the Sundance favorite, which premiered on HBO last week, undoubtedly deserves the praise and accolades it has recently received. For one, it sheds light on a situation—nay a human rights violation—which, despite receiving tremendous amounts of international media attention last summer, remains murky-in-terms-of-specifics to most.

The documentary which follows the trial of the three indicted Pussy Riot members, who were arrested for the group’s impromptu display of pro-feminist, anti-government activism at a prominent cathedral in Moscow last year. It gives some background on the Pussy Riot collective, which isn’t so much a punk rock band as it is a group of activists trying to fight the patriarchal, totalitarian regime of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.

Pussy Riot balaclava

It gave a bit of historical and social context to illustrate the fact that punk rock activism, which has been a mainstay in western culture since the late 70’s, is actually quite new to Russia and therefore not taken as lightly by older generations. It quite accurately portrayed the fundamentalist members of the Russian orthodox church, fanatically fighting to make sure the girls got the maximum possible prison sentence through shockingly candid interviews (at one point several die-hard defenders of the church fondly reminisce about the life in the 1600’s when outspoken women like Pussy Riot were burned at the stake, as they drive to a rally in favor of harsh punishment for the women).

But the best aspect of the film is the backstory it gives on each of the three imprisoned women. There’s Katia, 30, the tomboy feminist, who loves art history, French philosophers and unlike her co-defendants is unmarried, has no children and makes it a point to state that she never wants either; Masha, 25, who continually expresses concern over potentially losing her son to child protective services during the trial from the cage—yes, a literal cage—in which the women are kept while speaking to reporters, even prior to any conviction of guilt; and Nadia, 23, a long-time activist despite her young age, who, before gaining notoriety with Pussy Riot, got attention for her participation (while heavily pregnant) in a video of numerous couples simultaneously having sex at the Biology Museum in Moscow in 2008,—albeit with her then and current husband. Nadia, is also…the hot one. “I always look good,” she purrs in response to a compliment from a supporter, during her respective time in the “cage.”

Pussy Riot trial cage WILD

The women’s lives stories are narrated through a series of touching interviews with their parents, all of whom radiate the kind of love, allegiance and support that isn’t always expected from Russians of their generation. Unfortunately, the bios don’t come until the end of the film, when they would have been much more powerful, if put at the very beginning.

But what the otherwise compelling documentary is missing, is a definitive statement on why we should be outraged about the (spoiler alert) ultimate long-term imprisonment of Pussy Riot. As mentioned before, there are two key points that the documentarians failed to mention—perhaps out of negligence, ignorance, or the assumption that they would be lost on their target (U.S.) audience.

Firstly, is the fact the trail wasn’t legally sound—from a constitutional standpoint. Technically, the Pussy Riot performance was an act of misdemeanor hooliganism—yes, a criminal act—but one ordinarily punishable by a night in jail, community service and a fine. But since Putin’s name was mentioned in their performance, Russian authorities decided to up the charges—significantly—under the guise of religious protection.

Pussy Riot in church WILD

And here’s the doozy: the Pussy Riot situation isn’t a display of a lack of separation of church and state in Russia, but thoroughly illustrates the ownership of the church, by the state. If Putin didn’t feel the need to make an example of Pussy Riot for other musicians and activists, who dare speak out against his regime, prosecutors would have never bothered to try their sloppy, seconds-long performance as a hate crime against religion. Meanwhile, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who resides in a luxurious apartment in the center of Moscow, (paid for by the government) seems more than happy to appease the president, by demanding punishment, instead of forgiveness for the ladies of Pussy Riot.

While the documentary does portray Putin and fanatical members of Russian orthodoxy as the forces behind Pussy Riot’s arrest, it does not address the toxic symbiosis between them—which, for those who have closely followed the case, is a key element in the story. Nevertheless, A Punk Prayer is a beautifully shot film, full of candid moments that effortlessly depict a battle between good and evil, without having to rely on any bias from the filmmakers.

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