Kitty Green’s debut film Ukraine is not a Brothel tells the story of the controversial Ukrainian organization Femen and the women behind it. And despite my allergy to Femen’s thirst for media attention which seems to be a purpose in itself, I found the film interesting and insightful. The story is personal and the surroundings have a distinct feel, the sad beauty specific to post-communist countries. More than that, the film reveals the paradoxes and contradictions behind this controversial organization.
When I first heard about Femen, I found their naked protests courageous. They were shading light on a painful subject and at the same time a stereotypical understand of Eastern European women: beautiful, poor, happy to get just any Western man. Femen’s message was strong and simple – Ukraine is not a brothel. But soon enough getting attention for their show seemed to be more important than any cause. They became in fact some sort of rebels without a cause. And I find their actions most of the times some unnecessary circus. Read here about the #muslimahpride and the wave of reactions against Femen’s ‘salvation mission’ in muslim countries.
‘Our God is woman, our mission is protest, our weapons are bare breasts’ we hear Femen’s slogan in the beginning of the film, in a TV voiceover. Femen’s image capital is probably its strongest asset, their ‘weapons’ do help receive a lot of media attention and the girls are well prepared to answer any journalist question at any time. Seeing what is behind that image is difficult and this is what Green’s film is, a look behind the scene.
After quitting her job at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation where she mainly made documentaries for broadcast, Green went to her grandmother’s village in her native Ukraine where she took photos of the village and interviewed relatives. On her way back to Kiev she heard about Femen’s protest and she went there to film it. She, later on, showed the girls her footage and for the next 14 months she lived with four of the girls in a two-room communist apartment at the outskirts of Kiev.
The film is structured around the interviews Green made in this period. The camera faces the girls openly, and the interviews take placed in the girls’ rooms, in a shadowy light which gives a very intimate feel. This intimacy and trust between them and Green shows throughout the film. Green speaks fluent Ukrainian and her voice is often heard on the camera, asking questions. Whether you find Femen’s means questionable or courageous, this film gives an insight into the organization and these girls’ lives that no media coverage or PR story reveals.
‘Femen is a way of life’ says Inna Shevchenko, the main face of Femen, in her interview. The truth of this statement becomes clear throughout the film for several reasons. Femen is a way of life even simply because the girls’ whole life is structured around it. It is not possible in a society like Ukraine’s to be part of such a group casually. Their actions have deep implications on how there are perceived personally and socially.
The ones worrying most about these implications are the parents. They are interviewed in the film, and they discuss their daughter’s actions with a mix of worry and pain. ‘Would you love your child if he didn’t have legs?’ ask Inna’s parents, adding that in their case, their child just happens not to have a brain.
But the girls see things differently. ‘In Ukraine, 99% of the girls don’t even know what feminism is’ says Sasha Shevchenko, another member, in her interview, implying she is part of the 1%. Femen gives the girls a sense of purpose, of meaningfulness that nothing else manages to give them. That somehow seems to compensate for their often naïve grasp of the feminist doctrine which sometimes appears contradictory with their lives. Yana Zhdanova for example, is a stripper by night and a Femen activist by day and she sees no contradiction in this. She underlines that she doesn’t have sex with the men coming to see her dance but that she needs to support herself. Her situation is a contradiction and a point at the same time. ‘Where is a girl like me supposed to get some inspiration?’ she asks.
The film has many poetic shots. The camera reveals a bit of the girls’ daily routine, the quietness and modesty of their environment. We see them bathing, getting dressed, they appear natural and simple, comfortable in their skin and accustomed to the many bruises they get for their courage and acts of defiance. Music adds atmosphere to the film. The Soviet anthems sang by the Red Army Choir for example, counterpoint the girls’ aggressive interactions with the police. The film’s soundtrack also includes non-source music by Zoe Barry and Jed Palmer, and the well known Rasputin song by Bony M.
A surprising discovery is that despite Femen being a ‘feminist’ organization, most of its donations come from men. More than that, a sleazy Turkish man appears in the film, a man who promotes his brand of lingerie through Femen’s image. This discovery was a turning point of Green herself, the point when she questioned whether she was the only feminist at the table and the point when she decided that either she has to leave or she can stay to actually portray things as they are. She chose the latest.
By far the most controversial revelation the film makes is that behind Femen’s protests there was actually a man. Victor Svyatski, the man self-branded as the ‘father of feminism’, was the one to control Femen’s actions and development. ‘These girls are weak, he says boldly, they don’t have the strength of character. Even the desire to be strong. Instead they show submissiveness, spinelessness, lack of punctuality and many other factor that prevent them from becoming political activists.’
Victor appears in most of the film as a shadowy figure, the story is mainly centered on the girls. Green ‘saves’ him for the end. His shadow is nevertheless strong and ads tension to the story. Throughout the film, the girls receive phone calls from him. The conversation is always to the point, he checks whether things are going according to the plan. The girls are clearly even if discreetly troubled by his calls and checks. He is without a doubt, in charge. And they respond to him accordingly. In a secretly filmed scene, Green reveals his attitude towards the girls, like a strict communist school teacher, disciplining them verbally and showing them no respect. There is no equal point between them.
The film made headlines all over the world for the fact that it reveals ‘the man behind a feminist group’ that was already controversial. And as with any form of attention, these headlines only help Femen become more known and more popular. In fact, even the fact that I write about them and you read this, raises their image capital.