J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sundance ’13: Pussy Riot—A Punk Prayer


Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is currently in prison for protesting the collusion between church and state.  She also has a long history of demonstrating on behalf of women’s issues.  One would think her face would be on countless hipsters’ t-shirts.  Given her supermodel looks, her likeness would certainly be more appealing than ugly old Che.  However, Tolokonnikova and the other members of her punk rock band were objecting to the authoritarian Putin regime’s increasingly brazen abuses of power.  It might not interest professional activists in the West, but their ongoing plight is as dramatic as true stories get.  The persecution of Russia’s most famous underground band is documented in Mike Lerner & Maxim Pozdorovkin’s Pussy Riot—A Punk Prayer, which screens during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in Park City.

Sort of like a real world version of the musical tricksters seen in Simonsson & Nilsson’s films, the balaclava-donning Pussy Riot specialized in provocative, unannounced public performances.  Critical of both the Putin regime and traditional Russian patriarchal (or chauvinistic) attitudes, their lyrics have always been pointedly political.  While they certainly ruffled some feathers before, Pussy Riot’s decision to crash Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior was admittedly a profound miscalculation. 

While the thirty second performance was intended as a political commentary on the open alliance between the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin’s government, the resulting outrage amongst the faithful allowed prosecutors to come down on band with the full force of the state.  Soon thereafter, Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich were behind bars, facing trial on vaguely defined charges.

The reasonably well informed should know the broad strokes of the regime’s campaign against Pussy Riot, but Lerner & Pozdorovkin give viewers a look beneath their brightly colored hoods.  Over the course of the doc, the audience learns the three imprisoned musicians are deeply steeped in the contemporary art scene and earnestly committed to causes like environmentalism and democratic reform.  Far from being the maladjusted delinquents of state-sponsored propaganda, they are profoundly influenced by supportive, well educated fathers, who are quite compelling during their on-camera interview segments.

Sadly, Pussy Riot will not be performing at Sundance’s ASCAP Music Café.  Although the story is still developing, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina still remain behind bars.  Indeed, Lerner & Pozdorovkin illuminate the twists and turns of the case quite well, while eschewing voice-over narration.  Frightening and infuriating, Pussy Riot—A Punk Prayer is arguably the most important film selected at this year’s Sundance.  It is very highly recommended when it screens again today (1/20), Wednesday (1/23), and Thursday (1/24) in Park City.  However, it should also be a call for action.  For starters, every Russian filmmaker who attends a western film festival should be asked to comment, as a fellow artist, on Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina’s continued imprisonment.

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