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Pussy Riot: A Punk Rock Prayer

If Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s film about the recent travails of the Russian feminist punk-art collective Pussy Riot accomplishes nothing else, it does settle the eternal question of who is the world’s coolest dad. The trophy goes to the father of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, the most charismatically camera-ready of the three Pussy Riot members who were tried and convicted (on a charge of “hooliganism”) last summer, after participating in a noisy musical protest staged in the Moscow cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church. Tolokonnikova’s old man has the wary good nature of someone who doesn’t especially enjoy being called an enemy of the state, but who will take it if the alternative is to risk appearing unsupportive of his daughter. He tells the filmmakers that Nadia was quite a shy thing until she fell in with another street-art group, Voina, which staged such events as a mass orgy in Moscow’s Biology Museum, video of which was posted on YouTube. (Nadia was eight months pregnant at the time.) Referring to that particular break in the tedium, Nadia’s dad says, “I am not against the performance as such. It has a certain meaning,” adding, “But I am against Nadia’s participation in it, because I’m her father.” He winces a little as he says it, as if he can picture his daughter rolling her eyes. Having seen Nadia sitting in the courtroom during her trial, rolling her eyes as if she’d been tutored by specially trained attitude ninjas, your heart goes out to him.

The film amounts to a video scrapbook that includes interviews with parents of each of the defendants, footage from the trial, clips of Pussy Riot in action, and examples of Russian media coverage of the group, as well as the international response to the women’s arrest. Speaking of the “performance” in the cathedral that got the government to bring the hammer down, Nadia’s father shrugs, “I couldn’t talk her out of it, so I helped with the lyrics. My first contribution was ‘It’s God shit.’” He makes no effort to conceal his pride that they liked it so much they used it in the chorus, and good for him. Not everyone is so affable about it, and unfortunately, some of the people in the other camp have their own TV shows.

One proponent of spirited debate stands in his studio, surrounded by a live audience and a row of guests who seem to have been brought together just to see how loud they can holler, and waits: “Am I supposed to forgive them? Or can I punish them first”—slamming fist into palm for emphasis, as if emphasis was the thing his debating style was in most urgent need of—“and then maybe forgive them, if they ask for it?” A man on the street who’s come out to show support for the prosecutions, muses on the group’s name: “‘Pussy’ is a devious word. It means kitten, but also uterus. There are other possibilities. The best translation is ‘deranged vagina.’” He also suggests that, if the members of Pussy Riot have such problems with men, they should relocate to an island somewhere. Granted, I don’t speak Russian, and this is all according to the subtitles. I can’t guarantee whether some of this sounded better before the translators went to work on it.

When the Pussy Riot members get down to brass tacks, their own arguments don't sound a lot more nuanced. “Kill all sexists! Kill all conformists! Kill all Putinites!”—like that. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is solidly on the women’s side, so much so that it sometimes feels less like an exercise in journalistic filmmaking than a brief prepared for the court of international public opinion. But it doesn’t try to conceal the fact that Tolokonnikova and company’s passion, pop sense, and media savvy could stand to be joined by more political savvy. Pussy Riot targeted the church because of its power and cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin. (The protest was timed to coincide with Putin’s return to the presidency, after Constitutional term limits required him to spend four years in the Prime Minister’s office instead.)

But Tolokonnikova and her co-defendant, Maria Alyokhina, were both born in the late ’80s, during the time the Soviet Union was cracking apart. They’re too young to remember a time when religion was outlawed in their country, and have neither the personal experience nor the historical consciousness to understand how easy they’ve made it for Putin and the media to paint them as “Bolsheviks” who want to bring back the bad old days and start persecuting people for loving Jesus. Or, to put it in Fox News-speak, as proof that “all liberals are intolerant fascists who don't care about the opinions of anyone else.” That last observation actually comes from one of the prosecutors, who isn’t describing his own feelings, but what he sees as the inevitable reaction when people like the members of Pussy Riot make the “mistake” of being too hip for the crowd: “Go protest somewhere where you’ll be understood,” he suggests. Like the judge who declined to release Ed Gein when Gein was too old and sick to be doing any grave-robbing, he seems to feel that the women should be locked up for their own safety.

Even Tolokonnikova’s composure slips when she realizes that she and her friends are being accused of what, in the West, would be called a hate crime. Falling back on the weasel words “unintentionally offended,” as in “We’re sorry if we unintentionally offended anyone,” she struggles to make it clear that her problems aren’t with anyone’s God, and she insists that Pussy Riot is a force for “joy” that seeks to bring people happiness. That’s why the ski masks they wear to conceal their identity are brightly colored, she says, adding she’d appreciate it if the prosecutor would stop being a dick and referring to the colors as “acidic.”

These women have a much better idea of what they’re against than exactly what’s to be done about it. That’s easy to forgive in the context of a society where none of the gatekeepers seems to even know they’re in bed with the leader of a thugocracy. There’s an especially disgusting clip of an icy-looking Putin being interviewed about the trial by a British reporter who seems to regard this as his great opportunity to be all smirky and giggly about the group’s name. From most of the evidence on view here, you might get the idea that the guiding spirit of international journalism now is Adam Carolla. Tolokonnikova and company may not know just what the hell they’re doing, and they definitely underestimated the possible consequences of going inside a mostly empty church and raising the roof for all of 40 seconds, but at least they’re alive and kicking, in a system that appears to be killing everyone else’s souls, and not by inches.

There’s a priceless scene of Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina sitting in their cell in the courtroom, laughing and making snarky remarks about the reporters, while (accurately) predicting that the photos of them smiling and laughing will be used against them in the press. Meanwhile, the third defendant, Yekaterina Samutsevich, never looks up from her notebook; she’s half a dozen years older than they are and has developed enough of a sense of self-preservation to keep her head down while working on her statement asking for leniency. She gets it, ultimately receiving a suspended sentence. It speaks well of her friends that, when she’s released, they give her a big hug instead of pointing at her departing back and yelling, “J’Accuse!” They’re both still behind bars, and this film may leave you with a sense that we all have a responsibility to do what we can to keep them from being bored in there. Asked whether she thinks her actions will inspire others to become provocateurs, Nadia replies, “That would make me happy. I hope to hear about it in jail.”

Stray observations:

  • Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is this year’s debut film in HBO’s annual summer series of documentaries, which are always worth circling the calendar for.
  • Tolokonnikova gets off a number of choice sound bites intended to spur the cause of international protest. Given her circumstances, though, the most impressive comes when someone yells at her that she looks good, and without missing a beat, she smiles back through her glass cage and says, “I always look good.” Somewhere, John “Everyone Looks Better Under Arrest” Waters is pumping his fist in the air and cheering himself hoarse.
  • The spirit of punk, defined in a few seconds of rehearsal footage: “We just go nuts?” “Yes, but let’s try to make it go with the music.”
  • Alyokhina’s mom, who doesn’t look as if she ought to be especially well-versed in Western girly-girl pop, says that when her daughter was younger, she was always crazy about Britney Spears. Then, biting her tongue as if she’s just said that the secret ingredient in her legendary fudge brownies is rat shit, she corrects herself: “Not Britney, of course! The Spice Girls.” Man, Britney cannot catch a break!