Issue 55 (2017)

Evgenii Mitta: Act and Punishment (Vystuplenie i nakazanie, 2016)

reviewed by Ian Garner© 2017

Evgenii Mitta’s documentary Act and Punishment focuses on the events surrounding Pussy Riot’s performance of their song “Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away” in Moscow's Church of Christ the Savior in 2012. The trial that followed saw the group’s leaders—Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Mariia Alekhina and Ekaterina Samutsevich—found guilty of hooliganism and jailed. The trial became a cause célèbre for the Western media, which criticized it as a vehicle for Putinist censorship and oppression (Elder 2012). Combining documentary footage, phone and camcorder recordings of Pussy Riot’s performances, news videos, court tape, and interviews with the group’s founders and associates, and cultural historians in Russia and the West, Mitta seeks to portray Pussy Riot as the inheritors of the spiritual mantle of traditional Russian dissidence.

act and punishmentThe first part Act and Punishment explores how the leaders met at art school in 2008, working with the provocative art collective Voina and founding Pussy Riot as a protest vehicle in 2011 as Putin prepared to return to the presidency. The breadth of Mitta’s interviewees is impressive: he speaks with participants in Pussy Riot (which extends beyond the leading trio of women), their associates, members of Voina, art historians and Soviet dissidents. Mitta’s narrator-less production allows the participants space to explain how they became bolder, moving from “performances” of kissing policewomen to invading Red Square and, finally, the Church of Christ the Savior.

Although Western media coverage has focused on the group's political aims, Mitta shows the philosophical basis of their performance art. Calling themselves an “art and action group” based on the “concept of feminist action,” Tolokonnikova, Alekhina and Samutsevich explain that their loud, provocative and colorful performances are “visible” and “democratic.”Action, they explain, matters more than theoretical debates or backroom reading circles. Mitta emphasizes the group's planning, rehearsal and choreography: to the uninitiated, Pussy Riot’s performances may look like an anarchic chaos, but the artist themselves clearly believe in the theoretical basis of “actionism.” Thanks to the wealth of documentary and personal footage of the group’s “actions” that Mitta includes, the viewer sees how Pussy Riot situated themselves within the context of artistic opposition to Putin’s regime.

Act and Punishment strives to frame the group within a tradition of Russian dissidence. Interviews with cultural historians such as Boris Groys and artists such as the Moscow actionist Anatolii Osmolovskii couch the group’s own words in the context of Soviet dissidence. Although left unexplored, the educated viewer might also see the parallels between Pussy Riot and the provocative street performances of the Futurists and OBERIU. Mitta's contribution is to explain to the viewer that Pussy Riot are not simply aimless upstarts—riotous anarchists set on shock and provocation—but part of a Russian tradition of opposing untrammeled power.

act and punishmentMitta does not stop at comparisons with the Soviet era. Working from Tolokonnikova’s claim that her performance art felt like “crucifying herself”, the director attempts to show Pussy Riot as holy fools and martyrs. Interviews with an art historian in the Tret’iakov Gallery compare the group to Vasilii Surikov’s paintings of the Boyarina Morozova and execution of the strel’tsy. Mitta draws together his various sources to portray Pussy Riot as the “voice of the people.” Having dared speak the truth to the twin-headed power of Church and State, they would inevitably be martyred, just as the tsars martyred Surikov’s subjects. For all the window-dressing of punk and feminism, Mitta claims that Pussy Riot are part of a centuries-old tradition of rebellion, fated to re-enact the opposition of old as authoritarian power again returns to Russia. 

Mitta, perhaps unwittingly, also aligns both Pussy Riot and Act and Punishment with another Russian tradition: that of looking to the West for inspiration and support. Interviews with the group’s leaders show them adopting Western progressive ideas—they mention Judith Butler and express solidarity with LGBTQ movements—and artistic frameworks for their music. Moreover, as Mitta’s film climaxes with the court judgment against the women, frenetic montages show Western celebrity interest and media coverage: in an echo of the exile movements of old, the director appeals to the West for support and solidarity.

Act and Punishment tries to affirm Pussy Riot’s usefulness—the usefulness of artistic dissidence itself—when Putin’s control over Russia seems firmer than ever. The closing scenes portray the trio’s trial as a phantasmagoric work of performance art in its own right, an official pantomime of exaggerated performances, mendacious lies and procedural violations: the government’s own artistic statement. By placing Pussy Riot’s performances alongside those of the regime, Mitta and his willing interviewees strive to elevate Pussy Riot to a state of artistic transcendence while unmasking the state’s power to control the media narrative. As the film draws to a close, we see Russian schoolchildren and students inspired by the group and the view count on Pussy Riot’s YouTube videos tick ever upwards. The women’s “martyrdom” at the hands of the state, Mitta suggests, creates an ineffable, irrepressible spirit of dissidence.

For all that the film is a fascinating insight into the group’s artistic methods, and praiseworthy for its extensive library of source material—the footage of young women and their harmless if loud followers constantly surrounded by dozens of burly police officers ready to arrest and assault them is shocking to the Western viewer—I am not convinced by Mitta’s claims that Pussy Riot’s dissident message is capable of spreading uncontrollably. The Putin government seems more in control of the internet than ever before, and Mitta does little to explore whether Pussy Riot’s message penetrated further than sympathetic Moscow and Petersburg artistic circles—and, very publicly, the Western social media consciousness.

Given the time passed since the leading trio were released from jail, and access to Western and Russian interviewees, it is surprising that Mitta did not look beyond the court case to Tolokonnikova and Alekhina’s transatlantic activism—their media organization Media Zona, their fêted performance at Glastonbury, their public profile in Western newspapers—or disagreements between Samutsevich and her two former collaborators (Tolokonnikov 2013). Act and Punishment therefore, is more hagiography than interrogation. Although satisfied with the pre-trial explanations of Pussy Riot’s artistic interests, the viewer is left none the wiser as to whether Tolokonnikova, Alekhina and Samutsevich are the inheritors of the traditional dissident mantle or transient rebels for the Western Instagram generation.

Ian Garner

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Works Cited

Elder, Miriam. 2012. “Pussy Riot: ‘We still burn with desire to take Putin’s monopoly on power’.” The Guardian 27 August.

Tolokonnikov, Andrei. 2013. “Vtoroi den’ rozhdeniia bez mamy.” Ekho Moskvy 4 March.

Act and Punishment, Russia, 2016
Color, 90 minutes
Director: EvgenII Mitta
Cinematography: Vladimir Kanareikin, Aleksandr Kuznetsov, Igor Malakhov
Producers: Evgenii Mitta, Alena Gorlanova
Production: 2Plan2, Paperworks

Evgenii Mitta: Act and Punishment (Vystuplenie i nakazanie, 2016)

reviewed by Ian Garner© 2017