Act & Punishment: The Pussy Riot Trials

Studio: MVD Entertainment

Feb 12, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Starting in late 2011, the all-female, punk activist group Pussy Riot staged public performance pieces across Moscow. With a feminist, pro-LGBT, anti-Putin message, the fluctuating roster – who remained relatively anonymous behind brightly-colored masks – would put on shows in crowded, often symbolic locations, usually until they were apprehended by police. Relatively few would catch their live performances compared to the much greater numbers who would view them on YouTube and through social media. Their actions quickly drew the ire of the Russian government, who eventually came down hard on three of the group’s most prominent members.

The first part of Act & Punishment: The Pussy Riot Trials chronicles the group’s formation and early works, while the second part takes viewers through their trial and subsequent, unjust imprisonment on charges of ‘hooliganism.’ In March of 2012, three members of the collective were arrested for their involvement in an attempted guerilla performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The choice of venue was an intentional criticism of Putin’s ties with the Orthodox Church, but proved to be their downfall; the prosecution was able to spin it, effectively, as a religious hate crime, and the three members – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich – were handed down two-year prison sentences.

The proceedings sparked outrage, not only at the sentences, but the suspiciously long time the members of Pussy Riot were held without trial. They certainly had their Russian supporters – the documentary follows several of the pro-Pussy Riot protests – but they had just as many, if not more, detractors in the former Soviet state. (Filmmaker Yevgeni Mitta dedicates a fair amount of footage to their rallies, as well.) On the world stage, however, particularly in the West, Pussy Riot’s plight went viral, drawing gestures of support from not only human rights groups, but celebrities like Paul McCartney, Madonna, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Though Pussy Riot has only recorded a handful of tracks and never released a traditional album, their unfair incarceration briefly made them one of the biggest musical acts in the Western world, and shined a global spotlight on their message.

Act & Punishment is a great primer on Pussy Riot and their goals. Although their guerilla performances have the semblance of anarchic chaos, the level of thought and planning that went into each one is remarkable. The documentary features in-depth interviews with Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Samutsevich, as well as cultural scholars and art critics, which helps put their pieces into context for those of us not well-versed in Russian history and politics. If there’s one small complaint, it’s that the English subtitles feel somewhat haphazardly placed, appearing delayed or sometimes disappearing too quickly. It’s minor, though, and doesn’t detract much from this compelling documentary.

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