Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2013: ‘Pussy Riot’ + ‘Salma’

[18 June 2013]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Show Them Your Freedom

My home’s empty spaces
banish me, indirectly,
from this land;
and I return, resolving
never to step beyond
the limits decreed,
to the courtyard of my own house.
—Salma, “Home”

“I don’t know how you survived.” The Tamil poet Salma is returning to village where, a caption in the documentary named for her reveals, “she was lock up by her family for 25 years.” the camera shows a busy street, men in motorbikes, women shopping for vegetables and spices, a cow wandering unattended. A group of schoolgirls pass before the camera, their backpacks matching their black hijabs, their hand-baskets swinging. Salma wears bright orange and pink, making her way through a narrow alley to a small, pale-pink-walled kitchen. Here she’s greeted by her sister Nadjma and Nadjma’s daughter, Fatima, who joke that she’s “come to boss us around.”

The shot in Salma—screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York—changes now, a look out a window, the iron grate blocking the view of the street below, showing another window, more heavily barred, a basement. “What could you see?” comes the off-screen question. “Nothing,” Salma answers, “Just a bit of the street, A little bit.” She smiles warmly and turns from the window as her questioner observes, “I couldn’t have survived that.” The sisters recall that when the doorbell rang, they had to run inside. “Men are coming.”

As the women look back, they also look ahead, as Fatima is about to be married. It’s not a happy occasion so much as it’s a transition, necessary and daunting, a transition that Kim Longinotto’s film situates alongside Salma’s own, so long ago. Back then, she resisted and so her family kept her inside until she relented, agreeing to marry the man chosen for her, a businessman named Malik. Before then, Salma’s mother was forced to give her away as a newborn, because she was a girl. Raised by her aunt Jarina, Salma doesn’t remember her parents “being close,” she says. “Mother was always scared.”

The story of how Salma went on to become a poet is well known now, though she spent years unable to reveal her gift and her determination; she read voraciously a girl, first in school and then, once she started menstruation, while she was forbidden to leave the house, and then still as a wife. She hid books (Walt Whitman, Neruda) and also her own work, on scraps of paper in the bathroom among the sanitary towels. When at last, with the help of her mother, she sent off her first book of poems to be published, it was a revelation, and critics decried her self-expression, her descriptions of sexual desire and longing for freedom, her articulation of a particular subjectivity. She and her husband had children, she was elected to public office, and now, she travels and appears on TV, her face visible and, much to her mother-in-law’s dismay, her head uncovered.

The film frames Salma’s journey, from the home where she was incarcerated to her several public roles, with images of unchanging traditions: girls in veils, women in kitchens, Fatima’s dismayed face at her wedding (“I was against the marriage,” Nadjma laments, but “you can’t go against the big people. We were afraid of the village, the talk and the fear. That’s how the marriage happened”). The men who appear on camera speak or don’t: Nadjma’s son insists that women should remain hidden away (“Scientifically speaking, the burka protects men, so wear it for men and society, that’s all we ask”), Salma’s own teenaged sons look miserable as they text on their phones while she speaks to them. And Malik, who used to threaten to throw acid on her, now provides his own non-explanation of how he’s come to live with his famous pseudonymed wife: “In the end,” he says, “I had to accept her writing because I realize she was gifted.” 

Answering questions, Malik sits center frame. “A husband is meant to provide for his wife, no one else should do that, I supported her.” He frowns, noting, “Salma doesn’t appreciate that, I’m not sure what she thinks, if what I did was right or wrong. I’d get angry about the smallest things.” As the interviewer asks whether he’s still angry, Malik nods and goes on, as the camera pans from him to his wife, seated near a wall, her head turned from him, as if looking out a window not there, as if she’s the girl she once was, gazing from he parents’ window.

The cycle remains the same and also, you see as the frame makes its way back to Malik, absolutely changed. That he might describe his confusion and his fear for a woman with a camera, is simultaneously odd and familiar. Like his fellows, Malik is used to saying what he thinks, even as saying it exposes his ignorance and the limits of his assumptions. “They say an angry heart is a good heart, there’s goodness and…” Malik trails off as you see Salma’s face again. “I don’t know how to put it.” She does, though. That is her gift.

Salma (2012)

Salma (2012)

So too, the gift of self-expression has afflicted the members of Pussy Riot, subjects of another film at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (also airing on HBO this month”>). As in Salma, it is clear that the film—as a process of documentation, as an apparatus—has its own effects, reminding everyone on and off-screen of the celebrity afforded the subjects, their difference but also, too, their sameness, their status as symbol, speaker, and symptom. Here the young feminists on trial are introduced by their first names, Masha, Katia, and Nadia. And as they speak, for cameras and also, for the courtroom, they embody resistance and resilience but also, the pain of imprisonment and repression.

Arrested last year after they performed a raucous piece on the alter at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior on 21 February, the three women have since become an international cause, named by Madonna and other activists, their prosecution re- narrated as a condemnation of Vladimir Putin’s autocracy and the regime’s expanding fearfulness. By now most viewers will know that Pussy Riot has adopted an ingenious mode of punk performance, wearing balaclavas with colorful minidresses, boots, and scarves, the anonymity allowed by the ski masks in turn allowing other performers to don the identity, to pronounce their participation in the Pussy Riot Collective.

This gives way to several instances of triumph in the film, bittersweet certainly, for as Maria Aliokhina, Ekaterina Samutsevich, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova are led away to detention—facing seven years as prisoners of conscience—their rebellion goes on, in other forms. Girls protest on the street, hanging from lampposts and climbing up on gates, their arms spread wide and their voices loud even as policemen scramble to catch them in front of hundreds of press cameras.

“Riot,” they sing, “is the way to abort the system.” They encourage their audience to “Show them your freedom, a citizen’s anger, riot, riot.” The outrage is clear, and the film maintains an appropriately punk aesthetic, using handheld footage of performances, following the girls into the Cathedral, riding along with church members who wear odious white beards and assemble crosses to carry in protests against the girls. “The main one,” asserts one man, “She’s a demon with a brain, you can tell by her lips, by her mouth. She’ll fight to the end.”

Ah yes. If such targets seem easy, the film does offer a couple of complications, interviewing parents of the performers, partly proud and also frightened by what remains unknown, how they will survive prison, what might happen to their young children how their ideas and their fates will be understood by a world beyond. As A Punk Prayer follows on the performance, extending it so that this world might witness it, the prayer itself remains hopeful.

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