Pussy Riot at Hot Docs: Punk Feminist Performance Art on Trial

Reviewed in this essay: Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer, directed by Maxim Pozdorovkin and Mike Lerner, United Kingdom, 2012.

Always difficult for a film reviewer is what to do with a film that’s got a really great story, but is not itself a particularly great film. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t run out and see Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer, because you absolutely should. It’s the fact that it is a good film primarily because it tells the story of the three fabulously nervy, astute and uncompromising Pussy Riot members put on trial in Russia for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” rather any real contribution on its own terms, that’s rankling my film critic nerves so.

What’s wrong with that? Some of the very best filmmakers, after all, step back and let the story tell itself. But I suppose my crankiness is case specific. A feminist punk collective who made international headlines after members took the stage in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, jumped around in neon coloured balaclavas while singing politically subversive lyrics against the marriage of church and state before being immediately arrested, Pussy Riot represents a fascinating radical wave in Russian political and cultural life. And the very fact that the Russian state under President Vladimir Putin felt threatened enough to make an example of this triad of young, spirited and politicized women speaks volumes about the potential crossroads of that country at a time of tremendous political flux the world over. All of that is fabulous and brave. The film is good but not at all brave.

Again, you should all see this film because it’s an important story and the filmmakers Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin have impressive access to the courtroom where Nadia, Katia and Masha’s trial unfolds. But to be joyfully caught up in both the politics and spirit of Pussy Riot’s performances – both inside and outside of the courtroom – is to also lament that so little of that spirit of punk rock or feminist critique was injected into the construction of the film. It is a solid, straight, coherent telling of a trial that caught the attention of the world.  But its best parts are therefore always and only Pussy Riot themselves, which is why it seems fitting to leave this review with the words of one member, Nadya Tolokonnikova, during her closing statements to the court during her trial: “I am watching the disintegration of this political system, made manifest by the trial of three members of Pussy Riot. The system relied upon something happening that did not happen, to its own misfortune: the whole of Russia did not condemn us…. People say to us, your gesture was right, you’ve laid bare the weeping wounds of this political system, you struck against the very snakes’ nest which has now attacked you.

Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer screens Saturday May 4 (7:00 PM) at Scotiabank Theatre Toronto 3.

About the author

Brett Story

Brett Story is a writer, organizer, and independent documentary filmmaker based out of Toronto whose most recent film, Land of Destiny (2010), offers a portrait of a petrochemical town in crisis. She is currently working toward a PhD in geography at the University of Toronto, conducting a project about the relationship between prisons and cities.

By Brett Story