Film Reviews

In Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, Punk Lives as the Band Rots

Anyone trying to run a civilized country should know that throwing musicians in jail for making music is always a bad idea. That didn't stop Vladimir Putin's government from arresting three members of the punk collective Pussy Riot, after the group stormed the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow in February 2012 to perform a 40-second "punk prayer protest" denouncing the government's melding of church and state in a few bars of ragged vocals and jagged guitar chords.

At least five women took part in the demonstration, but only three — Nadia Tolokonnikova, Masha Alyokhina and Katia Samutsevich — were arrested. The charges: trespassing, wearing "inappropriate" (sleeveless) dresses and disrupting the social order. The upshot: A brief, orchestrated flash of anger originally witnessed by only a few shocked worshipers hit YouTube and turned these brazen, previously unknown young women into international free-speech heroes. Who's got egg on his face now, Vlad?

Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin's sharp-edged little documentary, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer — which played Sundance earlier this year, airs on HBO on June 10 and will screen at this week's Oak Cliff Film Festival — tells the story of the Pussy Riot Three, two of whom are currently serving jail sentences. Lerner and Pozdorovkin outline the genesis of the guerrilla punk-art collective (it was formed the day Putin returned to power), assemble footage from the women's kangaroo-court trial, and conduct interviews with family members. One particularly supportive dad says that he tried valiantly to dissuade his daughter from joining the group. When he realized he couldn't stop her, he instead helped her write lyrics to a Pussy Riot protest song. He takes credit, specifically, for the snappy little line "Shit! Shit! It's God shit!"

Maybe it's not particularly shocking that a few young women could be imprisoned in modern Russia for performing a noisy, disruptive song in a place of worship — that could happen in New York, too. But it remains legitimately shocking that the Putin government would dig its heels in so stubbornly to silence these young women, and to make examples of them even as the world howls. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer plugs right into that.

If there's anything heartening to be found in the story of Pussy Riot, a story that's still unfolding, it's in the reminder that the spirit of punk can never be completely co-opted by flaky forces like the Met Ball. In his comprehensive and grand 1991 history of punk, England's Dreaming, Jon Savage quotes the writer Jacques Attali: "Music is prophecy. Its styles and economic organization are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code. It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible; it is not only the image of things, but the transcending of the everyday, the herald of the future." The women of Pussy Riot have an idea of what the new Russia should sound like. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer shows just how hard it is to make that new world audible.