Let’s get something straight right off the bat when it comes to the HBO documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. Its subject, Pussy Riot, is not really a rock band. Yeah, a few of them strap on unplugged electric guitars and perform to slam-dancing backing tracks they recorded when they appear. But this Moscow-based group of young women is better seen as a political performance art collective with a rebellious punk rock attitude.
Nonetheless, the film about the trial and imprisonment of three of its members is an inspirational and important document, even for all of Pussy Riot’s shortcomings. Their music isn’t anything with much appeal beyond today’s punk rock underground. The collective’s political philosophy is frustratingly amorphous. When they do stage their disruptive public events, they basically hop and semi-dance around as a boom box blares their music. Not much to what they do or recommend it on any aesthetic level.
Yet they have captured the attention of the world. And even for all said above, they deserve the spotlight and support they’ve been given. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer does a fine job of showing why.
The way the film is shot dispels the usual Western image of Moscow as a drab gray place – a holdover from its Bolshevik – and not truly communist, never really was – past. Instead what one sees is a vividly colorful and vibrant place: a Russia hurtling headlong into a capitalist present and future under the yoke of a repressive central government, with a corrupt economic system where disparity between the rich and successful and everyone else is glaring, and in which the resurgent Russian Orthodox faith after many years of official atheism has its cadre of thuggish conservative defenders.
In a way, there are parallels to certain aspects of America today, even if the context and circumstances that led to this juncture are vastly different. And then there’s the key contrast that Pussy Riot represents: the collective’s commitment to rebellion at any cost and simply subverting the dominant paradigm in the name of freedom of thought and expression.
It reminds to some degree of the radical commitment to change of the American left wing in the 1960s, especially in its political naivete and almost innocent faith is the need to subvert the dominant paradigm. Here in America, even as we make some great strides towards being a fairer and more equal nation with the rapid legalization of gay marriage, other rights are being eroded by the organized efforts of the right wing plus the fearfully intractable economic divide being created by rapacious capitalism.
And I keep wondering: Where’s the outrage? Where is the fierce protest against today’s forces of repression and the pillaging of the middle class by financiers and corporations? Who is willing to not just speak out but act out and take risks to call attention to inequities and conformity?
When members of Pussy Riot staged a highly inarticulate impromptu performance at Moscow’s iconic rebuilt Orthodox cathedral that got three of its members arrested and tried. And this is where the film and Pussy Riot both become inspirational and admirable.
The three young women show a bravery and resoluteness in facing the charges that is bracing and impressive. When it comes to the place in the trial where they speak for themselves, even if their political positions still seem amorphous, their articulation of their commitment and passion plus the absurdity of the serious charges (and later sentences they received) is persuasive.
America could certainly use more courageous protest and anarchic punk rock attitude pitted against the forces of social, political and economic conformity, repression and inequity. And that’s where “A Punk Prayer” hits home for me. Up against severe penalties, the three members of Pussy Riot took their stand, dug their heels in, and suffered the consequences for acting in protest. It should serve as an example for the dormant leftist radicalism in our nation to do the same, as it once did in the 1960s.
Yes, the US electorate needs to get off its complacent collective butt and get to the ballot box and fight against the corruption of our representative government by corporatism and wealthy capitalists. But we also need radicals at the cutting edge to make noise at any costs to call attention to the pressing dangers in our government, economic system and society. If Pussy Riot can do it in Russia, so can we.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2013
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