Pussy Riot doc: Where is the hammer, or at least the clarion?

Published by the Alternate Dream

Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer

Directed by Maxim Pozdorovkin and Miker Lerner

UK | 2012 | 86 min

Pozdorovkin and Lerner’s British production on one of the most iconic groups of our time starts with a quotation by the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht on the screen: “Art is not a mirror to hold up to society” he tells us “but a hammer with which to shape it.” There is little doubt that Pussy Riot, this band of punk Russian Revolutionaries, attempts to take this dictum to heart. Their art is indeed hammer-shaped. But can the same be said about this documentary, itself a work of art, after all?

For anybody mildly interested in Pussy Riot, the film is enjoyable to watch. It features precious footage of their trial and the protests outside and rare account of the three punk comrades chatting inside the courtroom ‘cage.’ The filmmakers have done their elementary homework by interviewing the family members of arrestees to gain a clue of their path to the historic 30-seconds performance in the Moscow cathedral that led to their arrest and two-year jail sentence. It is clear, as they confirmed in the Q&A after the screening, that they enjoyed very wide access to Pussy Riot and their family members, including not only Nadia, Misha and Katya but numerous other members who now, more than ever, have to stay behind their balaclavas to avoid a Putin crackdown.

But is this the best we could expect from a documentary on Pussy Riot? Pozdorovkin told the audience that the film was a product of a heated summer in Moscow when they were in the middle of it all and wanted to produce the film quickly. They were evidently successful in this as less than a year after the Pussy riot arrests, the film is being premiered in the festival. But much is lost in this quick put-the-footage-together-and-call-it-a-film approach. Given the amount of stir Pussy Riot have caused on a world scale and the sympathy they’ve gained, it was of course a rat race of who can first produce a documentary on them. But these hasty productions, while enjoyable to watch and worthy in their own right, are rarely great films – and Pussy Rioters deserve better treatments. A documentary about them needs to be in solidarity, in form and content,  with their artistic ethos and philosophy. Instead what we get is the equivalent of a classical Christian art historian writing a book of introduction to the work of Picasso.

Maybe it is too much to expect from the liberal filmmakers to build a hammer that could satisfy the radical taste of the likes of Nadia or communists such as Brecht or the author. But at least one would expect a clarion that would shout out the Pussy Riot message to the world. And even this is not done by the film.

Most of this inability is inevitable and serves to underlie a central point about the western reaction to the Pussy Riot. The filmmakers ultimately fail to grasp the radical roots of Pussy Riot and their critique. Russian journalist Vladimir Nikitin long ago warned, in an op-ep for the New York Times of “Wrong Reasons to Back Pussy Riot” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/21/opinion/the-wrong-reasons-to-back-pussy-riot.html). Nikitin warned the hypocritical liberal supporters of the group that “you can’t have fun, pro-democracy, anti-Putin feminism without the incendiary anarchism, extreme sexual provocations, deliberate obscenity and hard-left politics.“ Sitting in the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, filled to its capacity of more than 700 seats, I couldn’t help but wonder the same about many unknown faces around me who were clapping hard to the film. Surely, any nice liberal could agree that giving two years of jail to three young women for a 30-seconds performance in a cathedral is quite brutal. But do they know that radicals like Pussy Riot would not have a much better opinion on the liberal democratic west? How many of them are ready to walk all the way with these rioters? Or would they, just like Putin, identify them as extremists if they had a chance to know them better or once they (rioters) targeted their holy sites?

Pussy Rioters are much more than an angry bunch of pranksters who are trying to have some fun and their appearance on the scene of history, in this critical junction, is not accidental. They are a reflection of the time that we live in: A time of an all-out crisis for the reigning capitalist system and revolutionary challenges to it everywhere. Pussy Riot is no less than a voice of this global revolution, expressed in one of the most suffocating bastions of the world order. This is the Russia of Putin where the KGB henchmen of yesterday Stalinism now lord over the obscene rule of capitalism; And all this in the land of the October revolution, Lenin and Trotsky, the beacon of hope for humanity in the early 20th century. After what was to be a decisive burial for communism and the triumph of capitalism, Pussy Rioters rose, from the Moscow itself, to call for a revolution, to protest against the ‘God’s shit’ and to ask the Mother of God to be a feminist and rid them of Putin. You need to listen to them only for a little while to see that they carry the legacy of great Russian revolutionaries of the past century (and they say so themselves). Thus, Masha stands up to say that not only they are not filled with religious hatred but that theirs is the genuine Christian Orthodox spirit against the despotic Putin. (One could say that Jesus had much more in common with Pussy Riot than with Putin and the Orthodox Patriarch.) And Nadia, their most clear revolutionary voice, takes pride in being holy fools, reminiscent of the rich Christian Anarchist tradition, of the likes of Tolstoy.

We could see some Tolstoy in Pussy Riot, you might say, but is it not too much to also feel a whiff of Trotsky?

Let us remember that it is Nadia who attacks the “corporate state system” in her court statement. Nadia’s dad tells us that her source of inspiration when she grew up was a boldly Communist grandmother who turned her into, in his dad words, ‘such a little Bolshevik.’ In fact, the accusation of Bolshevism is repeatedly made against Pussy Riot. Many Bolshevik-era posters adorned the film to depict this reality.

What is fascinating here is the way in which the 20th century history is used in the current debates. It is well-known that Putin, to the irk of liberals, wants to create a more positive image of Stalin and the Stalinist era while Russian ‘liberals,’ are such committed enemies of Bolshevism that they frequently adopt ideas that are decidedly not liberal just to be consistently anti-communist (i.e. anti-semitism, right-wing nationalism, etc.) Then, we see the specter of a Bolshevik spirit rising against the whole constituted order, both neo-stalinist Putin authoritarians and hypocritical half-hearted liberals backed by the West. All defenders of capitalism should tremble at this resurrection! Just as Pussy Riot brought back Punk (thought to have died on or about 1994) the specters of long-buried Russian radicalism also comes back to life with them!

Directors of this film are honest and genuine liberals. Speaking to the audience afterwards, they made clear that they knew Pussy Riot is ‘really radical’ and they don’t share their goals. They just wanted to get ‘their story’ out. But that is simply inadequate and any such task impossible. You can’t even begin to hope to tell the Pussy Riot story unless you adopt their standpoint or understand where they are coming from. as Nikitin wrote “[Pussy Riot membrs] are not liberals looking for self-expression… What Pussy Riot wants is something that is equally terrifying, provocative and threatening to the established order in both Russia and the West: freedom from patriarchy, capitalism, religion, conventional morality, inequality and the entire corporate state system. We should only support these brave women if we, too, are brave enough to go all the way.”

Lerner and Pozdorovkin don’t posses such courage and nor does their film.

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