In (coastal) America the line between performance art and pornography has long been walked by a plethora of female provocateurs, from Annie Sprinkle right up to Sasha Grey. So in this sense Femen – a loose knit group of mostly model-figure feminists who stage topless, flash mob-style protests – aren’t doing anything that would create uproar in New York or San Francisco. But in their native Ukraine, a country with an especially misogynistic mentality that doesn’t take too kindly to any citizen intent on upending the system, they cause a stir and then some.
Luckily there’s Kitty Green’s “Ukraine is Not a Brothel,” a documentary that goes beyond both politics and T&A hype to bring us a complex portrait of a movement seemingly riddled with contradiction. From its anti-patriarchal male founder, who claims paradoxes are part of history (citing Marx and Lenin – anti-bourgeois figures who were both bourgeois themselves), and who acknowledges he may have started the whole thing in part to be around sexy chicks, to a member who views her decision to work as an exotic dancer as a means not to be dependent on a man, Green’s inquisitive intelligent filmmaking is far more subversive than any bare-breasted sloganeering could ever be.
Global Comment spoke with the Ukrainian-speaking Aussie director prior to the film’s Canadian premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs.
Lauren Wissot: So what drew you to this story in the first place?
Kitty Green: I first read about Femen in a discarded tabloid newspaper that I found on the floor of a train in my home city of Melbourne, Australia. There was a photo of Sasha, a Femen activist, bare-breasted and holding a hand painted sign that read, ‘UKRAINE IS NOT A BROTHEL’. I thought it was a beautifully contradictory image. I was instantly intrigued by this provocative movement.
My grandmother is Ukrainian and I was traveling around the country to meet relatives when I came across Femen protesting in Kiev’s Independence Square. I had a DSLR with me and filmed the protest. There were twenty topless women in traditional Ukrainian floral wreaths protesting against the government’s water restrictions in Kiev’s biggest fountain. The police force brutally broke the protest up and dragged the girls away kicking and screaming. I was hooked straight away. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
LW: Ukraine, unfortunately, is suddenly a timely topic. How is Femen responding to the crisis?
KG: Femen had been protesting against Yanukovych since he came into power in 2010. The country had been in political and economic turmoil for a long time. The women of Femen were one of the first groups to speak out against his leadership and I like to think that their activism, and the exposure that they got in the media, encouraged other Ukrainians to take to the streets.
The leaders of Femen were forced to flee Ukraine before the crisis. They each face criminal charges if they ever return to their home country. They have been forced to watch this crisis from afar but remain very supportive of the Ukrainian people. Inna Shevchenko has promised to return to Ukraine as soon as she can, not topless, but in a suit – in order to one day run for president.
LW: Surprisingly, I found your most fascinating subject Viktor – the “patriarch,” or what some might call puppet master – behind Femen. He strikes me as a type of teacher who can’t wait for the day his students rebel against him and think for themselves – while at the same time having trouble relinquishing power, acknowledging his own loss of identity in the process. I think he’s your most complex character, and you even begin your film with him (albeit hiding behind a rabbit mask). What is your personal view?
KG: When I began shooting this documentary, I wasn’t aware of Victor’s involvement in Femen. He spoke Russian and I speak Ukrainian so I didn’t understand or question any interactions I witnessed him have with the girls. After a few months, I had my suspicions that he had a larger role in Femen than the girls were letting on. I started secretly filming him from that moment on and gradually became aware of the extent of his power. He is a truly fascinating character. He has yet to see the film. I’m terrified. I have no idea how he’ll respond to his depiction in it. He’s manipulative and unpredictable.
LW: “What’s the difference between a feminist and a prostitute?” one of the ladies of Femen asks the camera early on. Your film smartly never reveals an answer, leaving it an open-ended question. Personally, I know feminist sex workers that don’t consider that term a contradiction – yet one of the Femen women, after disclosing that she works as a stripper, emphasizes that she doesn’t have sex for money. They’re using their sexuality as a subversive tool – but only up to a point. Isn’t this a bit disingenuous? (Why not just own the brothel, so to speak?)
KG: Femen use their sexuality as a weapon to fight patriarchy. Yes, it can seem contradictory, but the contradictions are what made the movement such a fascinating subject for a documentary. The film shows each activist struggling with the paradox. Ultimately though, the role of Femen is to raise awareness about the rights of women in Ukraine, and through these provocative and titillating methods, they have succeeded in getting the world’s attention.
Ukraine is considered to be the sex tourism capital of Europe. Femen’s aim is to change the public’s perception of Ukraine so that the world views it as a country where naked women protest, not sell their bodies.
LW: Besides the overt sexuality and a male founder I feel like the biggest thing separating Ukraine’s feminist group Femen from Russia’s feminist collective Pussy Riot is a nuanced focus. When Pussy Riot protests we’re usually aware of what they’re protesting against, something specific and tangible, yet Femen often seems to be rallying against generic ideas (like “patriarchy”). Femen just seems less mature – and, not surprisingly, more high school boy. Is outgrowing Viktor (who seems to be recycling old ideas rather than generating new ones) a necessity for the movement at this stage?
KG: I believe that Pussy Riot will have trouble continuing on with their activism. Femen have been around for more than five years now. Pussy Riot shot to fame really quickly because of the brutal prison sentence. Also, Putin is a recognizable enemy, especially in the west. We all know who Putin is. Nobody knew who Yanykovych was. Nobody knew about the problems in Ukraine. It was a lot harder for Femen to get the same kind of traction in the western media for that reason.
One of the best things about Femen (and even Pussy Riot have acknowledged this) is that they keep fighting. Femen protest several times a week and never rest. It will be interesting to see how Pussy Riot continue now that they’ve been released. I think they will struggle to compete with Femen’s energy and persistence.
I think getting rid of Viktor was essential to Femen’s growth as an international movement. Inna Shevchenko has taken the reigns as leader and the organization is more dynamic and vivacious than it ever was. There are girls of all shapes, sizes and nationalities joining up each day. I have no doubt that the future of Femen will be bright.