Russian leader Vladimir Putin may be the master of the super-macho photo op, with all those images of his bare-chested horseback-riding, shirtless fly fishing, undersea bathyscaphe exploring and motorized hang gliding. But a recent documentary suggests Putin can still be scared by a bunch of girls.  

'In Russia, Pussy Riot grabs headlines. In the West, it’s Taylor Swift.   ' -Alison Gillmor

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (Russian with English subtitles) follows three of the punk musicians and provocative performance artists whose arrest, trial and imprisonment in 2012 sparked condemnation from Amnesty International and activists, artists and musicians worldwide. (Prominent Pussy Riot supporters include Madonna and Yoko Ono.)

The film is part of Speaking Truth to Power: New Films on Human Rights, a series organized by the Cinematheque in partnership with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. 

Filmmakers Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin use a lot of pre-existing material, including social media videos, news footage and even records of interrogation by the police. (“Do you take holy communion?” “Do you want to have a husband and children one day?”) The film gradually builds up a fascinating picture of political activism in the 21st century. 

The three young women on trial, Nadia Tolokonnikova, Masha Alyokhina and Katia Samutsevich, are part of Pussy Riot, a masked and anonymous Moscow-based feminist collective with a shifting membership.They were arrested after a 40-second guerilla-style “happening” in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which was deemed blasphemous by church officials and hooliganism by the government. 

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What follows is a kind of show trial. The young women make statements describing their dream of a modern, democratic Russia. (They consider Putin a dictator.) Their opponents counter with a scary alliance of extreme nationalism, religious orthodoxy and misogyny.  A man who wears a black shirt emblazoned with the phrase, “Orthodoxy or Death” points out that in the 16th century the Pussy Riot women would have been burnt as witches. He seems to think they’re getting off lightly.   

Pozdorovkin and Lerner demonstrate the fragility of free speech, showing how it struggles to take root in a country still living in the shadow of the Soviet era.  The culture’s deep divides become apparent whenever these young women are brought into the courthouse, with their supporters and their opponents gathering outside, the crowds screaming and shoving, the police moving in for mass arrests. 

There is just so much at stake here. In that horrible paradox of repression, the Russian authorities have created a society in which art and music have become dangerous, urgent and important. In Russia, Pussy Riot grabs headlines. In the West, it’s Taylor Swift.   

Since the film debuted in 2013, the three women have since been released. But during the Sochi Olympics, which were meant to be the triumphant expression of Putin’s official view of Russia, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were in the news again when they were whipped and bullied by Cossacks.

In early March, the two women, who are now campaigning for prisoners’ rights, were attacked and injured at a fast food restaurant in western Russia.  Clearly, their story is even more relevant now.

Hear Alison Gillmor's review on Up to Speed with host Ismaila Alfa on Thursday March 13. See Pussy Riot at Cinematheque from March 13 - 19.