Because of its Special Jury Award for “Punk Spirit” at Sundance earlier this year, I held out high hopes for Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, a documentary focusing on the radical Russian feminist punk band before, during and after their arrest and trial in Moscow in 2012. The film turns out to be something of a let down though, less informative than most articles and blogs despite the insider access it enjoyed. It’s key moments boil down to the few minutes of footage of the band members in their courtroom cell talking about their predicament while an endless line of photographers are paraded by for a snapshot of the dangerous trio.
But the film lacks a rounded, well-researched throughline to unite the various thoughts the directors and its subjects put forward, ending up more a collection of images than a documentary of biting substance. The directors, Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, seemed to get sucked into the media and celebrity circus that surrounded the case and, like Occupy Wall Street, the ideals that were the driving forced behind the band (aka: the point of the band and the documentary) become lost in the din of shutter clicks and girls in balaclavas shouting into their webcams.
The film is anchored by the personalities of Nadia, Masha and Katya — the only three known members — but performs only a minor biography on them before settling in for an almost formal court procedural. Lerner and Pozdorovkin compare it to the Russian show trials of the 1930s, but they do it without any particular conviction, perhaps because the actual show trials ended in summary execution immediate after.
Are Nadia, Masha and Katya more important as individuals in a documentary than the ideas they’re fighting for? Should one take precedence over the other, or is one so firmly rooted in the other that they are inseparable from each other? That’s always the hardest thing to balance in a political documentary. Even though the argument could be made that the individuals don’t matter, we don’t tend to identify with an isolated idea as strongly as we do with people who have an idea. Like other issues in the film, the directors seem to run their toes along the middle ground, not making a firm choice one way or the other. My feeling is that in 5-10 years, someone is going to make a legitimately good documentary about this dreadful farce of a trial — one that should have ended in a fine and a stern lecture (to which the girls should have rolled their eyes at as proper punks) — but the wound is still too raw to make for a good picture right now.