HBO’s ‘A Punk Prayer’ Isn’t the Pussy Riot Documentary the World Has Been Waiting For

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Tonight the Pussy Riot saga reaches its (American) conclusion with the debut on HBO of Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s film Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, a documentary that can be conveniently summarized as “Pussy Riot: The Telemovie.” In a way, it’s a surprise that it’s taken this long for someone to make a slick documentary about the three Russian feminists arrested in February last year for performing their anti-Putin “punk prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The story is compelling enough to have walked straight out of Hollywood: three charismatic (and photogenic) protagonists standing up against an oppressive regime, with a plot that involves shadowy political machinations, crushing injustice, and some pitchfork-wielding bearded lunatics thrown in for good measure. In summary, then, the world has been crying out for an in-depth documentary about Pussy Riot. Unfortunately, this isn’t it.

A Punk Prayer includes plenty of great footage, and a lot of work has clearly gone into both shooting and editing. The subject matter is fascinating, obviously. But still, it just doesn’t play well as an in-depth documentary — it’s more like a glitzy music biopic, something that perhaps stems from the idea of viewing Pussy Riot as first and foremost a band. They are a band, of course, but that’s pretty much the least interesting thing about them; their music isn’t anything special, but that doesn’t matter because it’s not really the point. The point is that they’re political activists, and if the film makes efforts to get to grips with the politics underlying the group’s performances and very existence, it’s only in the context of, “Hey, here’s something to be angry about!”

Ultimately, the problem is a matter of tone, and it’s apparent from the opening credits, which announce, “PUSSY RIOT: A PUNK PRAYER” (in faux-Cyrillic script, for Chrissakes), and then “STARRING,” along with freeze-frames of each of the three members who publicly stood trial, each referred by the diminutive, familiar version of her first name. It’s like agitprop meets Lords of Dogtown. The editing is all flashy, rapid cuts, and there’s a lot of handheld camerawork, giving the whole thing a sort of behind-the-scenes feeling that privileges style over substance.

This superficiality also extends into the treatment of Pussy Riot’s views and motivations. As I discussed in the context of Occupy here last week, the politics behind leaderless collectives are rarely homogenous and often contradictory. It’s hard to imagine Pussy Riot being any different — the three women arrested in February last year are its public face, but there’s an entire collective behind them, one whose motivations and dynamics I’d love to know more about (especially since cracks in the group’s united front seem to have started to show since Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were sentenced).

Instead, we get band rehearsal footage and establishing shots of Moscow, all fitting into a neat chronological narrative that starts a few months before the trio’s arrest and follows them through their trial and sentencing. It’s a pretty easy narrative to latch onto, of course: photogenic women in brightly colored balaclavas against a faceless totalitarian state, the young against the old, the revolutionaries against the establishment. And, of course, Pussy Riot know this — it’s no accident that their name is in English, nor that their iconography is so spot on.

It’s not that the film’s view of Pussy Riot is necessarily wrong — it’s just that it comes across as such unashamed cheerleading that it feels more like a companion piece to Yoko Ono awarding the group prizes in absentia or Sting making heartfelt statements of support from his mansion than a true analysis of their movement. As such, perhaps the most interesting parts of the film are those that don’t directly involve Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich and Alyokhina. There are extensive and fascinating interviews with their parents, whose reactions to their daughters’ activities range from enthusiastic support (Tolokonnikova’s father, in particular, who apparently helped write the lyrics to the fateful punk prayer) through rueful pride and outright disapproval. One can only imagine what they must be going through.

And then there’s the lunatic fringe of the Russian Orthodox Church, who are only too happy to tell the filmmakers their opinions of the “blasphemers.” The alleged Christian values of forgiveness and forbearance are in predictably short supply from those interviewed, with one denouncing Tolokonnikova as “a demon with a brain” and “a witch who [won’t] repent, and several pining for the good old days when “blasphemers” would have been hanged. On the whole, the believers seem happy do the work that religious types have generally done in the service of repressive regimes over the years with a little belief-based prompting, and if the irony of the fact that a couple of generations ago it was Orthodox believers in a similar position occurs to them, it doesn’t show — if anything, the memory of the suppression of religion under communism only seems to make them more eager to suppress pretty much everyone else.

On the whole, I suspect, A Punk Prayer is a neat summation of the Western understanding of Pussy Riot — three plucky young women taking a stand against an oppressive government. Pussy Riot good, Putin bad. And that’s unfortunate, because pretty much anyone with the most cursory understanding of this case has come to that conclusion already. For all that it’s a well-made and slickly put together piece of work, this film fails because over the course of 90 minutes, it doesn’t ever delve any deeper. Someday, someone will write a serious in-depth tome about Pussy Riot and what they mean to modern-day Russia, and the methodology of 21st-century revolution, and all sorts of other topics. In the meantime, here’s another item for the Pussy Riot publicity portfolio.