‘Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer’ and the art of saying nothing loudly.

Friday June 14th 2013


Like so many key figures in the campaign for freedom of speech, Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot rarely say anything of much interest. Of the many potent political sentiments in their separation-of-church-and-state anthem A Punk Prayer, my favourite goes ‘Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist, become a feminist, become a feminist’. The chorus refrain, meanwhile, offers ‘shit, shit, it’s godshit’, repeated ad infinitum with a ferocity that briefly suggests insight.

This, of course, is what makes the band so fascinating. The freedom of speech debate that raged after A Punk Prayer was performed guerilla-style in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior last year was far more interesting than those often provoked by more ‘important’ works of art, because it challenged us to consider the issue of censorship away from the issue of quality, as well we should. After all, we can all agree that Howl is an important work of literature and deserves to be available to all, but what’s that conviction worth if we don’t afford a similar dignity to The Human Centipede II?

So while the members of Pussy Riot might not have much more to say on the separation of church and state than your common-or-garden sixth form poet, the fight for their right to have their say is a vital, global issue.

A new documentary about the band — Maxim Pozdorovkin’s Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, which had its UK premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest on Wednesday night — takes its formal cues from the band’s music. Just as they rely on the familiar mechanics of punk to underpin their political agenda, Pozdorovkin recycles stylistic techniques he’s seen in other documentaries to shore up inconsistencies in his material. Just as Pussy Riot incessantly namecheck feminism, the Church and Vladimir Putin in their lyrics so that you definitely know what they’re talking about, he uses gritty on-screen titles and hackneyed news footage to remind you every few minutes just how important the story he’s telling really is. Deep down, for all the surrounding hype and column inches, you get the sense that neither has much to say at all.

The documentary does boast enviable access to the band and the court case that followed their Cathedral performance, but reveals little more than the order of events, which have already been succinctly detailed in forms that take considerably less than 86 minutes to process. Prosecution was the making of Pussy Riot, transforming their fairly lame brand of agit prop into an international talking point. If Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer continues to garner polite applause from liberal festival audiences, it risks missing the point entirely.