Pokazatelnyy protsess: Istoriya Pussy Riot

Pussy Riot - A Punk PrayerSynopsis: Filmed over the course of six months, this film tells the incredible story of three young women: Nadia, Masha and Katia. As members of the feminist art collective Pussy Riot, they performed a 40 second “punk prayer” inside Russia’s main cathedral. This performance led to their arrest on charges of religious hatred and culminated in a trial that has reverberated around the world and transformed the face of Russian society forever.

With unparalleled access and exclusive footage, this film looks at the real people behind their now famous colorful balaclavas.

From their family and friends we learn what transformed these women from political activists in to modern day icons. As Nadia, Masha, and Katia defend their convictions from a cage inside the courtroom, those Pussy Riot members still at liberty plan new guerilla performances and cultivate a protest movement across the globe.

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Pokazatelnyy protsess: Istoriya Pussy Riot 8.0

eyelights: the group members’ ballsy behaviour and stances. their views on politics, gender, and religion.
eyesores: the needlessly aggressive reactions that their actions provoked.

“Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist
Become a feminist, become a feminist”
Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away, by Pussy Riot

I am a feminist. I believe in equality between men and women. I believe that we have yet to reach equality (women still can’t get the same jobs, same level of pay and same level of education in many parts of the world – including North America). But I dare hope that we will in my lifetime. I’d love to see that.

Admittedly, I’m not much of an activist. I’m also not especially educated pertaining to gender issues. However, I’m consistently questioning gender roles around me and supporting women who break with tradition and/or break new ground. One has to mindfully fight our complacent acquiescence of these roles.

Why do men and women have to take on specific roles? Why is the woman expected to be the nurturer? Why can’t the man be? Why does the man have to be the protector and earner? Why can’t the woman be? Why does the man take the lead in relationships? Why can’t the woman do that? Why not take turns?

We need to always question the reasons why we have certain expectations of, or beliefs about, women and men. The reason is simple: we otherwise limit our choices. By putting ourselves in neat little boxes, we simply do not have the freedom to express ourselves differently, to be something other.

In effect, it’s about fairness and personal freedom.

It blows my mind that, in this day and age, we still subscribe to ridiculous notions like women have a fascination with shoes, men have a fascination with cars. Really? Says who? And, if that were to be proven factual, why have we shaped our beliefs in that fashion? It’s certainly not genetic; these are recent phenomena.

My favourite is the whole pink vs. blue debate. Some people are adamant that pink is for girls and that blue is for boys. Zombie-like, they impose those colours on their own children from a young age, preventing them from making the choice themselves. And yet, this is also a very recent phenomenon.

Shocking, isn’t it? But let’s face it: blue and pink aren’t exactly colours that we find regularly in nature. There is no genetic pre-disposition or long-standing cultural basis by which women wouldn’t prefer blue and men wouldn’t prefer pink. These are just modern conventions that have taken a foothold.

And that will someday pass. Someday.

But it’s damning that people still buy into it, evolved and sophisticated as we like to believe ourselves to be. (Please permit me to snigger for a moment)

In the ’90s, I thought that we were making progress. With the grunge movement and the Riot Grrrl movement, I thought that women had finally reached the same pedestal as men: they could shred like men, they could shout like men, they could be bad-@$$ just like men. Heck, they almost looked the same.

Then came the Spice Girls and their pedestrian female “empowerment” anthems. Being a ditzy girly-girl was now considered a new form of female empowerment: You have the power to not fight the power. You have the power to entrench the status quo. Fine: Feminism is about equality and freedom of expression.

However, their -and the Britney Spears of the world’s- enabling behaviour only served to damage our progress collectively. Fast forward 15 years later and good luck finding a woman who picks up a guitar and rocks out with the boys. There are the rare few, but if there’s a guitar it’s usually for light strumming.

And now Beyoncé is hailed as a feminist in some circles. Beyoncé, for goodness’ sake! And Katie Perry doesn’t even know what it means to be a feminist – and like many of her kin, wouldn’t want to be known as one; the word “feminist” is a word that no one dares to use anymore; it’s considered as vile as “environmentalist” or “terrorist”.

These are our role models, ladies and gentlemen: people who have a total misunderstanding and/or a fear of feminism. Feminism is scary. Feminism is something to be avoided or co-opted. Worst of all, these are our children’s role models – they will help shape future generations’ world views. Genius.

Enter Pussy Riot.

Pussy Riot is a pro-feminist, anti-sexist group of women aged in their twenties and thirties. They are a deeply controversial -and heralded- Russian punk collective that holds peaceful but unsanctioned performances in public places to protest the status quo – in particular Putinism, religion, gay rights and sexism.

I can’t say that I know enough about them to support all that they do, but I support their right to protest and agree with them on their choice of causes – although the manner in which they choose to do so may not always be to my liking. Such is politics: agree on problems, but not necessarily on solutions.

Having said this, when three of their members were arrested on February 26, 2012, I -like many around the world- was aghast that they were to be tried on the charges of “premeditated hooliganism performed by an organized group of people motivated by religious hatred or hostility”.

Just for holding a brief (less than a minute) punk performance in a church on February 21, 2012.

Dubbed “Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!”, this performance and the subsequent trial attracted much attention. These women’s freedom of expression was on trial. What they had done may have offended some people, but it was no worse than most random activism or satire.

But perceived disrespect of the Orthodox Church carried much more weight than anything else – even anti-government sentiment. And thus it was that they were being made an example of. Demonstrations were organised in their country and around the world to support them. Celebrities spoke up in their defense.

Nevertheless, the three women went to jail anyway.

‘Pokazatelnyy protsess: Istoriya Pussy Riot’ is a 2013 documentary film on the legal troubles of Pussy Riot’s Masha, Katia and Nadia. It begins with their “Punk Prayer” performance and goes all the way to their appeal of the judge’s decision. It’s cobbled from publicly available material (news footage, court proceedings, …etc).

There are no interviews with the Pussy Riot members, but some of their parents go in front of the camera to express their thoughts on the matter. I was pleasantly surprised to see that they were rather supportive of their daughters’ choices in this matter – even if it meant that the consequences would be harsh.

With their help, we got to delve into the young women’s personalities and history.

Katia is the eldest of the group; she saw the U.S.S.R. crumble around her and her father says that this is when she became political. Masha, meanwhile, apparently always pointed out injustices and defended people – even as a child. She became an environmentalist, but wasn’t political until much later on.

Nadia was apparently a shy girl until she moved to Moscow. Then she join Voina, a performance art group, and she started to perform in public. She participated in a graphic sex piece at the Timiryazev State Biology Museum, whilst 8 months pregnant (amazingly, her dad is even understanding of this).

Their personalities come through quite clearly in court, where they frequently the opportunity to make statements, officially and unofficially. They all refused to acknowledge the charges and defended their actions, challenged the status quo. They were ever defiant even right before the verdict was rendered.

I loved that they held true throughout. At the onset, during interrogation, Katia is asked if she’s married, has kids or even dreams of either. She immediately contests the notion that she or any woman should. Similarly, Nadia answers her inquisitors’ questions by bringing up the separation of Church and state.

Nice.

The religious angle is discussed to some degree here, with some of the faithful interviewed to give their side of the story. Unfortunately, some of the most devout followers the Russian Orthodox Church look uneducated or like southern hicks, trailer trash and bikers, lending their side little credibility.

From my perspective, I understand the value they place in their faith; for some it’s a crucial anchor in their daily lives. But this is extreme. To want to jail someone for the supposed personal hurt that they felt, for being “demeaned” through a 50-second punk performance, is absurd. Chill out for a moment.

My issue is that religious freedom is tied to freedom of expression: how can one form be allowed and not the other? It feels so random, in the same way that communists were hunted down in the McCarthy era. What or who’s next? What is considered defamation? Where is the line drawn?

Who decides? And based on what?

When terms are loosely defined or when rules don’t apply in equal measure to everyone and everything, one can’t help but believe that there is injustice. And that’s why many felt that it was a show trial. Interestingly, less than a year later, Russia had a new law against insulting people’s religious feelings.

By then, Katia had been released from jail following an appeal; her new lawyer argued that she was prevented from participating as she’d been accused. Nadia and Masha, however, remained in jail for nearly the rest of their two-year term. But Pussy Riot has continued ever since – in various forms and line-ups.

‘Pokazatelnyy protsess: Istoriya Pussy Riot’ isn’t a great film. It doesn’t even explore the questions evoked by Pussy Riot’s action enough to be intellectually satisfying (experts could have been called in, historical perspective could have been given, …etc.). But it is a reminder that freedom can easily be curtailed.

From that perspective, it’s an essential document. While I’d give it a 7.5 as a film, I must give it an 8.0 if only because it puts the spotlight on a significant moment in the history of human rights – not just in Russia, but also internationally. This event roused people around the world, forcing them to be more vigilant.

It’s also a crucial document from a feminist standpoint. These young women defied traditions and expectations. They questioned the status quo, in the hope of broadening horizons not just for women, but for all citizens. And despite the hardship they endured, they never backed down; they fought on.

By virtue of this alone, they have made a difference. I hope that many will take to heart the lessons learned in their Punk Protest. The world is shifting beneath our feet, like quicksand; our human rights and hard-fought civil liberties seem to be vanishing grain of sand by grain of sand while we try to stay upright.

But gradually, much like one boils a lobster.

There are two outcomes in that scenario: 1) we manage stay upright with little to stand on/in, or 2) we get sucked in with the sand. Either way, it’s an untenable state of things.

And that when Punk Prayers come in – to remind us that it just doesn’t have to be this way.

Date of viewing: February 21, 2015

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