The subtitle to the film Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, a documentary airing on HBO tonight (June 10, 9 p.m.), is accurate: Nadia Tolokonnikova, Masha Alyokhina, and Katya Samutsevich, who were arrested on Feb. 21, 2012, after performing for 40 seconds on the alter of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, do indeed embody many of the precepts of 1970s punk-rock culture. Although presenting themselves as a band, they view their work as performance art as much musical performance. A collective of unstated numbers of young women, Pussy Riot has found its most effective communication tool to be planned “spontaneous” musical performances that consist of rudimentary songs proclaiming their feminist, anti-authoritarian stance.
In the documentary, the members come off as tough-minded, resourceful, and wry: “It’s not too hard,” one of them says of their punk-band strategy: “Write a song and think of the place to perform.” Filmmakers Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin have footage of the group assembling at a protest site, divvying up the musical duties (“You play the guitar”), and diving headlong into a song or two before scramming.
Since the sacrilegious sin-crime and immediate arrest that made the group famous worldwide lasted a mere 40 seconds captured on what looks like a jittery cellphone, the bulk of A Punk Prayer is taken up by the show-trial of what I’d call the Pussy Riot Three. Placed behind a glass cage, the three women are allowed to make occasional statements, but their defense team comes off irritatingly smug and complacent – it’s as though the lawyers defending Pussy Riot lacked Pussy Riot’s own awareness of just how offended the combination of defying the Orthodox Church and Vladimir Putin’s leadership would be to the court system.
The trial exerts a sickening fascination. The film is warmed by the comments of some of the defendants’ parents. Soon after Nadia tells us that her father is “wonderful… so supportive,” he proves it. A thoughtful, baby-boomer generation man, he tells of being told by his daughter of Pussy Riot’s church-invasion plan as they rode the subway. He says he immediately tried to talk her out of it, but “after a few stops” on the subway ride, he realized she was determined to go through with her actions. His reaction? “I started helping out with the lyrics,” he says.
Unmentioned in the film is the debt Pussy Riot says it owes to the Russian poet Alexander Vvedensky (1904-1941), himself a government-suppressed poet of organized anarchy, and, like the Pussy Riot Three, a member of an art collective, OBERIU (Association of Real Art). During her group’s trial, Nadia specifically cited Vvedensky’s “principle of ‘poor rhyme’… He said, ‘Sometimes I think up two rhymes, a good and a poor one, and I pick the poor one, because it is the one that is right.”
A Vvedensky poem collected in the superb, recently published An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB Poets) includes lines that could be a Pussy Riot lyric:
Will they cut or bite off their heads
It makes me want to puke.
All those about to die get cold feet.
They have activity of stomach,
Before death it lives as hard as it can.
But why are you afraid to burn up, man?
Nadia and Masha are serving two-year sentences in prison camps; Katya was released on appeal. One key moment in A Punk Prayer occurs during a break in the trial: When informed that Madonna had written the group’s name on her back to display it at one of the concerts, and had donned a balaclava onstage as a gesture of solidarity, the faces of Nadia, Masha, and Katia are intent, avid. They seem not to be thinking, “Cool! A big star likes us, maybe we’ll become famous, too, and be freed!” Instead, what their faces communicate is: “Oh, good. Maybe she gets it. Maybe some of her fans will now hear about us and get it. Our message still has a freedom on Madonna’s back, and in covering Madonna’s face. She’s not as good as we are at communicating this freedom, this audacity, but she’ll do until we get out.”
(After tonight’s premiere, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer will be repeated on June 13, 16, 18, and 22.)