Where to begin? Kitty Green’s documentary Ukraine Is Not A Brothel, the result of 18 months (if I am to remember correctly) spent sharing a cramped two-bedroom apartment with multiple cast and crew exudes the very energy and aggression that seems to have been behind it. The spaces that this documentary inhibits are poor, junkyard areas: no running water, a barely existent kitchen. What brief moments featuring the crew that made the film suggest a barely-there working order, people in thick parkas huddled together without room to move, pointing the camera every-which-way.
The title alone is incredibly suggestive and arrogant, assuming we’ve already asked the question that it so forcefully answers. The film concerns the women behind Femen, the feminist group – movement seems too premature a word – based in Ukraine. It’s safe to assume it was inspired by one of the placards the women held up at a protest, waving it high amidst the screams and police-encouraged violence. The title is also a neat summation of what Femen are (mostly) about: changing the attitude that the women of Ukraine are sex objects, items to be taken off the shelf to be fucked. In their view, this is how foreigners view all of the women, mere prostitutes to accompany their travels. There’s no evidence to confirm this but there’s no evidence to suggest it’s not true either. (Any Westerner that has ever been a tourist in Europe can surely relate to such an attitude, male or female.) One terrifying journey into Belarus to protest Lukashenko’s regime ends with the threat of murder and rape.
The mystique about Femen is that there isn’t one: the women, all buxom beauties that would look at home within the pages of any modelling catalogue, protest via painting slogans over their topless bodies. Surprisingly the group started out as a more conservative comparison – fully clothed women chanting the slogan of the day. But that was five years ago. The women behind Femen – the main ones are Inna, Oksana, Anna and Sasha – have obviously come to the conclusion that no one will listen to them if they’re communicating in such a way. Indeed, Green later remarked in a Q. & A. that the women were surprised to see Green instructing her crew on what to do; ordering a man around was still worlds away for them. The problems don’t end there.
In some ways they’re absolutely right. The global attention that has clasped onto Femen has certainly been heightened considering their half-naked heedfulness, much like that 2003 Entertainment Weekly cover featuring the Dixie Chicks with criticisms painted across their naked bodies. One of them remarks early on, “99% of women in Ukraine have never heard of the word feminism.”
All of this suggests a powerful mobilisation that could inspire millions of women however it’s not exactly the whole truth. As the film progresses we find out that a man, Victor, is the leader of the group. “A group against patriarchy, led by a member of the patriarchy.” He’s not your everyday male feminist, defying his own conventions: at one stage he admits he started Femen as a way to meet girls. This innocent aside hides the real man behind it all, who for most of the film manages to elude the cameras, swearing and borderline abusing them.
Victor isn’t the villain of the story – the area is too murky a grey to declare him as such – but it does add to the long list of contradictions that would make a group or person textbook feminist. One of the women can’t even offer Green an answer to the straightforward question Are you a feminist? I forget who it was – the group is large – but it feels like most of them would respond in such a manner.
The greatest success is that this film even exists – what is depicted suggests a tough journey, both for Femen and the documentary crew – most would have abandoned it early on. While the group raises plenty of room for discussion considering its feminist attitudes versus the reality, Green never takes on a dismissive attitude despite the many problems within. The film could easily have languished on a shelf for a hundred years in distribution hell, given the no budget, but it hasn’t. These are voices that need to be heard. We’re all the better for it.
[rating=4] and a half
Nicholas Brodie – follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire