ACT + PUNISHMENT Pussy Riot doco gets 7/10

Directed by Evgeny Mitta
Starring Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich

Federation Concert Hall, Hobart (Southern Hemisphere premiere)

7/10

Dark Mofo does well to secure Australian exclusives and special performances ahead of other major festivals, but the screening of Act + Punishment went a step further, being the premiere for the Southern Hemisphere.

Act + Punishment is the third documentary to be released on the infamous, or now very famous, Pussy Riot (earlier films Pussy vs Putin and Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer were released in 2013). It differs from other films as it delves into the history of protest art, the Voina street art group Pussy Riot stem from and the power of social media, but it still maintains a solid focus on the story of the band.

The Mofo screening was introduced by Pussy Riot manager and music director Alexander Cheparukhin, who visited Pussy Riot in prison and described making the documentary as “the longest trip in my life”.

The film opens with the familiar scenes of the court case of the three most famous Pussy Riot members (Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich) following their attempted performance in the Orthadox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow (YouTube it) for which they were later arrested and convicted with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. The film reflects on the lead up to the arrest and explores the motivations of the girls involved, citing the rise of popularity of Vladimir Putin as a main reason to escalate their public actions and protests. Avoiding punk clichés, the girls’ signature bright clothing and balaclavas are explained as a method of lessening the militarist look of the punk scene. The film highlights the importance of their use of social media to recruit members and broadcast their activities, becoming instant news that kept them from becoming “old news”.

It was this use of social media that alerted the world to the trial and garnered massive international support for Pussy Riot that spawned a series of sympathetic activism and public protests from popular artists, musicians and politicians including the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Franz Ferdinand, Madonna and Paul McCartney, who rallied in opposition against the Russian government and petitioned for the release of the convicted members.

Considering Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were released in March 2014 (Samutsevich had her sentence suspended) and Act + Punishment was first released in October 2015, there is little in the way of conclusions on life outside prison and the state of the movement since the girls have been back in the real world.

There’s also no discussion of the internal disputes between the three arrested Pussy Rioters, and between them and various other third parties including Tolokonnikova’s husband and their lawyers. These stories would make for an interesting doco on their own. In essence, the personal trials and tribulations aren’t really what this film is about, but being the most recent documentary released about the band, some kind of conclusion would have given a more finite ending than the preceding two documentaries.

Instead, the film screening was followed by a Q&A with Lukyanova and Pussy Riot members Alyokhina and Alexandra Lukyanova (Sasha Bogino) who entered the stage to a swell of applause from the audience. Questions were sent in earlier via the website or by txt from the audience in the intermission.

Pussy Riot at Welcome Stranger

Answering the questions, Alyokhina reflected on the influence of 20th century Russian artists and poets that died very brutal deaths during Stalin’s period and how examining this period of history helps to understand how things in modern-day Russia came to be, and how it can be overcome. Lukyanova discussed the importance of independent news websites like Media Zona, founded by Pussy Riot members, focusing on the trials and cases within the Russian prison system to bypass the boycotts that stop mainstream Russian media reporting freely and to promote human activism against Putin’s extremist laws. Lukyanova gave an example of a 22 year old man who was given a three year probation and six months in prison simply for playing Pokemon Go inside a church.

Later, the conversation turned to the feeling on the ground of the LGBTIQ communities in Russia and in particular Chechnya, and the fear of persecution that has led to masses of people leaving. The stories told were reminiscent of a horrible era long thought left behind and it’s hard to believe that in a modern society land is seized and people are imprisoned or executed simply for being “different”. In a sobering response, Lukyanova stated that “compared to other parts of the world where people are fighting for marriage rights, in Russia they just need to stay alive”.

The discussion also explored the influence of Pussy Riot on more recent activism, with some blaming them for the inability to perform actions that would once have attracted attention without persecution, and new laws now punishing people from undertaking acts of free speech and protest.

Recounting her time in prison, Alyokhina likened it to being a labour camp for the Russian government having to make uniforms in freezing temperatures at a colony hidden 3,500km away from Moscow. To maintain her strength, she says she did not have a strategy: “Putin is a strategist, I am not”, but said that good humour and making jokes with friends kept her motivated.

In the current political climate being felt all over the world, it has to be asked, where is today’s version of Pussy Riot? The girls are not silent and still have a role to play in the global fight including the release of an upcoming book, but Alyokhina is adamant that every person has a role to play and every person can be a hero: “every person has a choice to make, they can act or stay silent”. In a final closing statement, she concluded: “only people together can really change things and if we need a revolution, we need this one”.

The evening ended with a standing ovation, not so much for the film, but for the women of Pussy Riot and their continuing fight.

Later in the week, the girls from Pussy Riot performed as part of Dark Mofo’s multi-venue Welcome Stranger event. Inside a dingy 80s era pub fitted out with pinball machines, indoor football and bain marie chips, the audience donned colourful balaclavas to bust out to some banging Russian techno and happy hardcore, something you don’t get to see everyday. While their DJ set was marred with technical issues, for a short time the colour and empowerment were there.

Q

Photos by Q and thanks to Dark Mofo & Moorilla Gallery

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