I like documentaries because I feel like I emerge afterwards more educated than I was when I went in. For that reason, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is essential viewing.

Pussy Riot.Pussy Riot are a three-woman feminist punk band, and also a political movement. Arrested in 2012 for a vocal protest in Moscow, one of them has since been released, and another one has actually not been seen for some time. Why are they in jail? What could a punk band have done to make the Russian state come after them with such weighty amounts of persecution?

They held their impromptu punk protest gig in a Russian Orthodox church.

Now, the context is important – in many countries, this would have been met with scorn, rather than the weight of the law. But Russia is not the sort of country that takes kindly to any sort of criticism of the church. Pussy Riot were met with legions of religious protesters who saw them as militant atheists rather than feminists, and the situation soon spiralled out of control.

The film starts as Pussy Riot rehearse and then approach the church for the aforementioned performance, and the documentary follows their story until the point at which one of them is given a suspended sentence instead of imprisonment at an appeal six months after their arrest. It’s incredibly comprehensive, and we hear from Pussy Riot themselves, their families, their opposition, other liberals – this is a full education in what’s going on in Russia.

The reason it’s such a gripping watch is because of the completely mind-boggling response from the Russian government to the protest. A protester being arrested is nothing new – but protesters being given two years in prison? Threatened by religious extremists? Something is deeply wrong in Russia, and what’s marvellous about this documentary is that there’s no heavy narration, no real guidance – just a load of facts and opinions from various angles that allow you to come to your own conclusion.

Obviously, I’ve got my own political opinions, and in fact a complicated relationship with the Orthodoxy, so this was quite an emotionally charged watch for me, in some ways. I know that’s not the angle most people will be coming at this documentary from, but despite the fact I’ve actually had some negative experiences with that body of religious folks, the documentary was so objective that I never felt like it was pointing at the church and saying “this is horrendous.” This is important.

It’s what is lacking in Michael Moore’s documentary works, especially noticeable in Sicko, where he walked out on an interview with an NHS doctor because he felt the doctor’s opinion that the American health system (the one Moore was making a supposedly documentary about) contained anti-American sentiment. Objectivity and removing your opinion is key to a documentary, and the same goes for journalism, outside gonzo work – you are not the subject. A Punk Prayer gets this exactly right.

At about 90 minutes long, it contains a lot of information to take in, but it’s the ideal length. It tells you everything you need to know about the situation, and there’s no reason they’d have left anything out given that out of the Russian government and the filmmakers, it is the latter who aren’t going to be deceptively choosy with what they’re showing you.

The interviewees are also interesting people in their own right: a father of one of the arrested Pussy Riot members speaks with fondness about his daughter’s political activism, members of an Orthodox protest group speak about the reason they were so offended, and liberals outside of Pussy Riot explain why they’re worried about liberalism’s reputation in Russia post-Riot. At one point I got my phone out and started reading up on Russian religious history, discovering things about the nation I’d never known before and feeling quite surprised at the huge sea changes the country has seen over the decades.

If you saw Madonna speak about Pussy Riot or saw them appear in the news and gained only a rough idea of what was going on, then watch A Punk Prayer. It’s a genuinely important documentary, and more people need to know about this. Watch it, show it to your friends, talk about it.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is out on DVD on Monday 25th November, 2013.

Read our interview with Mike Lerner, director of A Punk Prayer here

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Rise, rise! Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer - Review, 5.0 out of 5 based on 1 rating
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