The Buzz

Hot Docs: Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, High Five: An Adoption Saga

Categories: Movies

 Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer tells the story of a young generation protesting authoritarianism in Russia. (Roast Beef Productions/Hot Docs)

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer.

Directed by Mike Lerner and Maksim Pozdorovkin (Roast Beef Productions, Britain)

The winter of 2012 saw the emergence of an energetic and hopeful protest movement in Russia — the first in a generation — which was opposed to increasing authoritarianism in the country and the election campaign of Vladimir Putin for a third term as President. Among the many faces of that movement, the ones that grabbed international headlines were those of the Pussy Riot feminist punk rock group — Nadia Tolokonnikova, Katia Samutsevich and Masha Alyokina, all young, beautiful and fearless.

The women had already made a name for themselves because their anti-Putin and feminist songs which they performed guerrilla fashion — wearing colourful balaclavas to cover their faces — in provocative places like Red Square. But in February of that year, on the eve of the March election, they came into conflict with both the powerful Russian Orthodox Church and the Putin establishment when they stormed the altar at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow to perform a political song entitled Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!

They performed for less than a minute before church security stopped them, although all of this was videotaped by other Pussy Riot members who escaped. The rest is history. They were formally charged with hooliganism and put on trial. Over the next few months, the country watched the trial proceedings on state television as the three girls sat behind a cage, as is the custom in Russian courtrooms.

Brash defiance in face of court

What distinguished these girls, apart from their striking beauty, was their unapologetic position and their brash defiance of a political system that appeared set to crush them. They didn`t have a chance. The judge in August 2012 handed them two-year sentences for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" to be served in remote labour camps, despite the fact that two of the women, Nadia and Masha, had young children at home.

'You can jail us, but this freedom lives within us'

-- Pussy Riot
The documentary by British director Mike Lerner and Maxsim Pozdorovkin makes use of the treasure trove of Russian state television`s tape of the trial, which is compelling mostly because the women are so engaging — mocking, from their cage, the court proceedings. The footage includes field material that was never shown on television; for example, long sections when camera operators were just rolling on the girls as they chat among themselves and to their friends and family.

To supplement this footage, which is the heart of the film, the directors also interview the parents of Nadia, Masha and Katia, exploring how each became radicalized. Nadia is especially magnetic, with her luminous hair, wide mouth and mocking eyes. The Orthodox Church activists, also interviewed, describe her as tough as nails. "She`s a demon with brains," they say almost admiringly. "She`ll fight to the end." Masha, equally resolute, was always an idealist, and entered into political activism through the environmental movement. Katia, slightly older — she`s 30 — came of age during the economic crisis of the early 1990s and embraced radical feminism.

Children of Glasnost

They were all the children of the Glasnost era, and represent the first post Soviet generation. As such, they are remarkable in their utter lack of fear with regard to the police, court officials and any other authority figures who try to bully them.

The documentary follows the trajectory of the trial, with a surprising twist involving Katia. All three remain defiant and, incredibly, smiling to the end. Their riveting concluding speeches in court are intelligent and rousing denunciations of the Putin regime and express certainty that the regime`s days are numbered. "You can jail us, but this freedom lives within us," they say.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is an indispensable guide to a new Russia that continues to produce, despite all its hardships and repression, such colourful, bold and memorable individuals.


 The Ward family of Surrey, B.C. with their five children. (Interfilm/Hot Docs)

High Five: A Suburban Adoption Saga

A documentary by Julia Ivanova. (Interfilm Productions, Vancouver).

After the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, many Canadians opened up their hearts and homes to Russian and Ukrainian orphans. For all those who are curious about how the adoptions worked out, filmmaker Julia Ivanova has produced a powerful and moving study of the experience of one family over a five-year period, starting in 2007.

Ivanova was born and raised in Moscow and trained at the prestigious Russian Institute of Cinematography (VGIK.). After emigrating to Canada in 1995, she was for many years an adoption consultant and so knows the terrain. Now based in Vancouver, she selects a fascinating case study from the West Coast.

Martin and Cathy Ward are a likeable couple living in suburban Surrey, B.C., who want to adopt. In 2006 they host a seven-year-old Ukrainian orphan girl, Alyona, and then her eight-year-old sister Snezhana, for short visits to Canada as a vacation from their orphanage. The couple soon decides to adopt the girls. When they discover that the girls have three other siblings in the orphanage — 15-year-old Sergei, 16-year-old Yuliya, and six-year-old Sasha. Their plan becomes more ambitious — to adopt them all.

The film draws us into the emotional rollercoaster as everyone waits for permissions from Ukrainian authorities. Without giving too much away, the family's reunification does not happen overnight and when it does, despite the courage and good humour of Cathy and Martin, the kids' integration to Canadian life is a bumpy one. These five children come from extreme poverty and one of the most heart-wrenching scenes is when the oldest sister, Yuliya, recounts the abuse that she and her siblings escaped when they fled to the orphanage.

Forging relationships with teens

The film dips in and out of their lives over a five-year period, and we see the kids grow and mature differently. Martin, the father, who is a nurse at a Vancouver hospital and a wonderful role model, observes that he initially had no illusions about achieving a deep bond with the two teens,who had spent much of their childhood in the orphanage. But the most powerful scenes are with these two young people who mature into adulthood under his gentle and kind watch. Yuliya, the eldest, who raised and protected her siblings in the Ukraine, grows up to be a sensitive and thoughtful young woman, although never fully embraces Canadian life.

Her brother, Sergei, despite having a childhood deformity caused by malnutrition, is blessed with a sunny personality and has success making lasting and deep friendships with other Canadian teens. The younger children adapt more easily to their suburban Canadian lives, although they never fully lose their Russian accents.

Canadian 'niceness'

The director, unlike the Canadian parents, can communicate with the kids in their own language, and she often throws out questions to the kids about their private feelings and dynamics within the family. Sometimes it feels as though there is a kind of complicity between the kids and the filmmaker as they discuss the "Canadians". Yuliya, the teen, says in an aside that Canadians are preoccupied with being "nice". She explains that while Russians will express themselves without inhibition even if it means being rude, Canadians don't want to traverse the boundaries of "niceness."

Did the Ward family like the five-year "fly on the wall" study of their home life? Ivanova says that no matter how successful they have become as a family unit, there were still some moments that were too intimate and painful to watch on the big screen. But for the rest of us, this is a revelatory journey through the adoption process and the film should appeal to a broad audience. Martin and Cathy Ward emerge as everyday Canadian heroes, and the family they lovingly created, with fortitude and a sense of humour, is still very much a work in process.

— Jennifer Clibbon

Tags: High Five: an Adoption Saga, Hot Docs, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

Comments are closed.