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Pussy Riot Doc Defends Free Speech But Skips the Messy Details | The Nation

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Pussy Riot Doc Defends Free Speech But Skips the Messy Details


From left to right, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich sit in the defendant's cage at their trial. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko.)

At the culmination of the documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, band member Maria Alyokhina tells the court that “this trial is not just an evil, grotesque mask, it is the face that the government wears when speaking to the people of our country.”

The Sundance-winning documentary by Roast Beef Productions, which makes its public debut on June 10 on HBO, presents the narrative of the Pussy Riot trial as a parable on the reactionary nature of the Putin regime and its crackdown on free speech. Directors Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin have collated a wide array of court proceedings, public actions and interviews with the defendants' parents and those who would see the three girls hang (in some cases literally).

But the documentary also leaves out a few messy details. Although it doesn't ignore the position of the Orthodox faithful undergirding the prosecution’s case, the film remains couched in the traditional Western narrative of the trial, which blames Putin for all things rotten in Russia, and fails to give full measure to the conservative majority and public employees, pensioners and others that still support both the president and Patriarch Kirill.

Meanwhile, it's unclear whether any of the film's profits will go to the group or related causes. (Roast Beef Productions reportedly had a contract with a company linked to a Pussy Riot lawyer, but band members have condemned the commercial use of the group's name). Lerner told The Nation that he could not disclose any commercial arrangements related to the movie but that the production team has a close working relationship with freed band member Yekaterina Samutsevich (although they unfortunately decided not to interview her).

The documentary begins with footage of the infamous “punk prayer” of February 21, 2012, when Pussy Riot members attempted to perform their song “Mother of God, Drive Putin Out” in Moscow’s iconic Church of Christ the Savior. Three of them made it onto the ambon at the head of the church and began yelling lyrics criticizing the Orthodox Church and its subservience to the state before being dragged out by security. (The film doesn't explore the difference between the widely circulated music video version it shows and the unedited footage where the girls sing mostly a cappella, which is arguably far less provocative.) Alyokhina, Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were later tried and convicted on charges of hooliganism and inciting religious hatred, and Alyokina and Tolokonnikova are now serving two years in penal colonies.

To its credit, the film attempts to give a human face to all those involved. Their somewhat befuddled parents describe the three girls’ personalities and path to radical politics, while the Carriers of the Cross, a kind of motorcycle-less biker gang in shirts reading “Orthodoxy or Death,” remark rather wistfully that in earlier times, such witches would have been hanged or burned at the stake.

Even the state prosecutors, two doughy, watery eyed bureaucrats, get their moment before the camera to refute contentions that Putin is directing the court proceedings, exclaiming that the opposition sees Putin “behind every bush.”

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It's too bad the directors didn't interview Samutsevich, who was released in October after changing her defense and who has reportedly fallen out with Tolokonnikova. Instead they attempt to gain a glimpse into the girls' personalities and motives through footage of their questioning and trial. Some of the most human moments occur when the band members are chatting idly in the defendant’s cage, surrounded by cameramen and glowering policewomen as they wait for the proceedings to start. “Where are our lawyers?” Tolokonnikova wonders. “They’re giving interviews or tweeting,” Alyokhina says. “Or at the bar,” Tolokonnikova jokes.

The film’s climax comes with the riveting final speeches of the three girls before the guilty verdict that they expect, where they strike a tone that is defiant—they continue to condemn Putin, the Church and the trial—while arguing that their apologies were sincere.

“Every day, more people understand that if the political system ganged up like this on three girls that performed for 30 seconds in the Church of Christ the Savior, it can only mean that this system fears the truth and sincerity that we represent,” Tolokonnikova tells the court.

There’s certainly a lot of truth to this, but prosecutors’ framing of the protest as an affront to the faithful wasn’t entirely off-the-mark either. An independent poll on the eve of the verdict found that 42 percent of Russians thought Pussy Riot had “insulted holy places and believers’ faith.” Another poll during the trial showed that only five percent of Russians supported letting the band members off with no punishment.

It’s important not to forget these circumstances while watching what is otherwise a rousing defense of free speech.

Read Alec Luhn on Russia's fledgling student movement against controversial education reforms.

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