Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

Plays March 13-19 at Winnipeg Cinematheque

Pussy Riot hasn’t calmed down since its most prominent members were released from prison in December. Less than a month ago they protested the Olympic Games in Sochi, where they were viciously beaten by Cossacks and arrested for voicing their opinions. Just days ago, several members were assaulted with chemical weapons in Nizhny Novgorod. Now more than ever, I’d love to see a really great Pussy Riot documentary. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is certainly interesting and informative - but the great Pussy Riot doc, it is not.

The film follows the events surrounding the group’s famous protest at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour; we see rehearsals, the performance itself, and the subsequent trial and imprisonment of the three detained members. There are no interviews with the film’s subjects, which is understandable, since they were behind bars at the time. Interviews with their parents shed some light on their backgrounds and their history.

What directors Mike Lerner (Hell and Back Again) and Maxim Pozdorovkin (Capital) do very well is show the forces against which Pussy Riot protests. Interviews with the militant Orthodox Christian organization Carriers of the Cross are particularly troubling, with its (all male) membership lamenting that Pussy Riot won’t be burned like witches as they would have in the 16th century. Even the less extreme elements, like talk shows, illustrate how deep the roots of institutionalized sexism run in Russia.

But I can’t help feeling like the filmmakers don’t understand Pussy Riot. What makes the group compelling is that they’re both dangerous and fun. They’re mischievous and have a sense of humour to their art-activism. A Punk Prayer is serious and humourless right down to its soundtrack, which consists of requiem-like piano and strings. This is a movie about a punk band with no punk music.

Not to say that this isn’t worth seeing. It’s informative and interesting. I just wish it captured Pussy Riot’s spirit better than it does.

Published in Volume 68, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 12, 2014)

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