DVD Review: 'Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer'

★★★★☆
Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin's provocative documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (2013) follows the trial of Nadia (Nadezhda Tolokonnikova), Katia (Ekaterina Samutsevich) and Masha (Maria Alyokhina), three members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot who last year were sentenced to two years in a labour camp. The activists were charged with hooliganism after performing a satirical rock song in Moscow's main cathedral criticising the Russian Orthodox Church's close ties to the Kremlin. A feminist collective, the group formed the day that Vladimir Putin controversially returned to power in 2011.

Lerner and Pozdorovkin interview the women's families, supporters and fellow members of Pussy Riot who continue to stage guerilla performances. The women's action in the cathedral did not cause physical damage to any person, building or property and the harsh sentence was clearly in retaliation to their incendiary lyrics. Katia was later freed on appeal, pleading that she didn't have the chance to play her guitar in the cathedral. Although the band's act of resistance evidently struck a chord with thousands of ordinary people in Russia, it also incurred the wrath of the Orthodox Church. Some of the most chilling footage is of members of the Orthodox clergy referring to the women as "witches" and "deranged vaginas".

A Punk Prayer's scenes set within the court room are just as damning of the Russian state. The trio remained in a glass cage throughout and were only permitted to read out their defence at the end of the hearing. Lerner and Pozdorovkin succeed in capturing the naivety of the young activists, their self-consciousness in front of the camera when they realise that they have gained international notoriety, and their courage in standing by their right to peacefully protest against an authoritarian political regime. As they point out during their defence, "we are only jesters, holy fools...our performance a small and somewhat absurd act".

Pussy Riot's playfulness is evident from the footage of one of their previous oppositional acts, to kiss a policeman, and earlier performances all aimed at creatively protesting against repression in Russia. As a postscript to the film, Nadia began a hunger strike on September 2013 to protest against the appalling prison conditions in which she was held. As punishment, on 22 October she was moved from the labour camp to the hospital of an isolated prison in the heart of Siberia, far from friends and family. Her husband was not informed of her whereabouts for 26 days. Nadia and Masha are not due for release until March 2014.

Lucy Popescu

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