There’s a big revelation in Ukraine is Not a Brothel, a new documentary about feminist protest group Femen: the group, which is known worldwide for its strategy of topless protests, was actually founded by a man. After the film’s September premiere in Venice, the internet exploded with headlines that seemed ripped straight from an Onion article.
“Femen mastermind outed as man who calls women 'bitches,'” read a headline in The Week. “Abusive man sells new brand of feminism under banner of boobs. All media falls for it, as per usual,” wrote Canadian feminist Megan Murphy.
But the film, which screens at SXSW this week, is more nuanced than this coverage suggests, offering a complex portrayal of the group whose slogan is, "Our mission is protest, our weapons are bare breasts." With continuing unrest in Ukraine, a film following one of the first organized feminist groups in the country couldn’t be more timely.
Director Kit Green said she first became aware of Femen when she came across a photo of one of the group’s leaders in a tabloid on the floor of a train in her native Australia. “She was topless and she was holding a sign that said, ‘Ukraine is not a brothel,’ and I thought that that was a really beautiful image, and a little contradictory,” Green told NPR affiliate KBIA. “She looked a little naïve but strong at the same time, and I was really attracted to that image.”
Femen activists at the 2009 "Ukraine is not a Brothel!" protest against sex tourism in Kiev. (Photo via Wikipedia)
Ukraine is Not a Brothel uses archival material, explosive footage of protests, and face-to-face interviews Green obtained while living in a small apartment with the women over the course of a year to to tell the story of the contentious feminist movement. With a soundtrack that ranges from Soviet anthems to kitschy pop music, it captures the spectacle that is Femen while subtly weaving a darker storyline throughout, as viewers slowly become aware of an offscreen force controlling the group.
Green deliberately waits until the end to “out” Victor Svyatski as the group’s leader, and by the time she does, his role has become irrelevant. Speaking from behind a big rabbit mask, Svyatski looks like a buffoon, admitting he founded the group with vague hopes of getting laid. His other reflections on the members of Femen are far less benign, revealing a deep, stunningly ironic misogyny.
“These girls are weak,” he says. “They don’t have the strength of character. They don’t even have the desire to be strong. Instead, they show submissiveness, spinelessness, lack of punctuality, and many other factors which prevent them from becoming political activists. These are qualities which it was essential to teach them.”
But before he is interviewed calling the women “weak,” the film has already shown them being kicked, punched, stomped on, and dragged away from the protests screaming. In one particularly harrowing scene, the shaking women recount being dragged into the woods in Belarus by secret service agents. There, they were stripped naked, covered in gasoline, and threatened with sexual assault before being forced to run back to Ukraine.
In a Q&A following the film’s U.S. debut at the True/False film fest last week, protagonist Inna Shevchenko said Ukraine is Not a Brothel serves as a kind of allegory for the plight of women in Ukraine, saying she and her fellow Femen activists were dedicated to a cause they felt helpless to pursue without the help of a man. During the film, one protagonist says that 99 percent of girls in Ukraine have never heard the word “feminism,” much less believe they can create an organized movement behind it. Indeed, when asked what feminists inspired her to become an activist, Shevchenko said she had never heard of any when she joined.
A still from the film, where FEMEN members are painting protest slogans on their bare breasts.
Now, perhaps as a result of the film, the group has cut ties with the founder, whom Shevchenko called “the most shining example of patriarchy.”
“We were first fighting patriarchy in our feminist group,” Shevchenko said. “We first had to fight patriarchy in our personal, private lives. That’s why we want to fight patriarchy globally and we will keep going.”
The film’s most compelling element—the fact that it follows the group at such a pivotal time in history—is also its biggest flaw. Male founder aside, the group is not without its problems, and the film shows no indication of how the women will address them going forward. Svyatski admitted he hand-picked only the prettiest thin, blonde women to join the movement because “it sells more papers” and the group has been criticized for inflammatory Islamaphobic demonstrations they staged under his direction. It is unclear if the group will become more inclusive as its founding members grow in their personal grasp of feminism and the group expands worldwide. As writer Uzma Kolsy noted after Femen's "topless jihad" in the spring of 2013, "Any group with a similarly disengaged and seasonal interest in 'saving' Muslim women from their personal beliefs would also be met with a collective groan of frustration."
Kari Paul is a journalism student in her final year at University of Missouri-Columbia. In the past, she's written for Ms. magazine and a variety of other publications in the U.S. and abroad. For more, follow her on Twitter.