New Documentary "Ukraine is Not a Brothel" Reveals Femen's Core Problems

ukraine is not a brothel poster

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.”

"Naïve but strong" is an apt description of the group, which vociferously speaks out in support of gender equity but whose dogmatic approach and Islamophobic protests often alienate women.

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 says "we protest against patriarchy in all forms"

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

by Kari Paul
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7 Comments Have Been Posted

Can we stop calling Femen feminist already?

Everytime I see the words "Femen" and "feminist" associated with each other in a completely unsatirical way I cringe. You mentioned multiple times their Islamophobia but did not hold back associating them with a feminism as if they're a feminist movement.
1) Any group that attacks an already marginalized group of women is not feminist.
2) Any group that uses images of oppressed black women acting as slaves to white women to promote themselves is not feminist.
3) Any group that intentionally sexualizes and objectifies the body of women, furthermore only doing so to women who fit conventional beauty models feminism is trying to obliterate, is not feminist.

I could go on forever. Femen are a joke and it's embarrassing this article exists without dividing feminism from their racist, Islamophobic and sexist tactics for attention.

Yes. Agree completely.

Yes. Agree completely.

This is definitely not the

This is definitely not the intersectionalist feminism from the Western world. But this is because in Eastern Europe there was no real grassroots feminist movement. From the article:

"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."

Give it time. Feminism in the 60s in USA was not better than this.

Eastern Europe Feminism As

Eastern Europe Feminism

As usual, I am disappointed by perception of West World feminist when it comes to understanding and perception of East Europe politics, feminism and their practice. Even as I follow many portal and groups that are feminist and declare themselves as such, I find rarely any image of Eastern European or Slavic women and their contemporary problems and even less understanding for those matters. "Bitch media" uses the word bitch not to offend it's readers or to refer to themselves as such, but to expose the word as ugly and to protect the victims of verbal violence. It is used ironically.
If you could understand that you should understand the work of E.E. activist. We are not "just discovering" feminism, we had more rights and acts before U.S. women even thought about it. We don't need "more time" we need to be heard. Even before the revolutions, during the feudalism, women were acknowledged in some of their rights. Later, we were regarded as equal, if not entirely in practice, than in all the law matters. Now, we are facing new kind of oppression, justified by versions of so called democracy and capitalism, that is just a cover for wealth distribution among small group of people, families, - wealth that belonged to all the people, to the state, not individuals. To get by with those thefts, they need a new for of silencing masses, and that is usually violence on women. Re-inventing and re-using old traditions, where female should be virgin, shy, silent, and fuckable, submitted to men in all ways, and expose herself only as a part of agreement between other men. Their exposed bodies ARE protest, and to understand why and how, you need to learn more on situation in Europe, and not by filtered and superficial media. In modern western cinematography, Eastern European woman is usually presented as some stereotype of gold digger, or prostitute, or victim. In recent French film "Elles", we are presented as chubby, blonde, confused by any form or institution of education, rubbing our private parts and big tits, and constantly fucking. We are much more, and discrimination that we are subjected to, not only by our gender but also by our origin, is constant and unbearable. And I suggest you look into work of Valie Export before making any other comments.

I am from Eastern Europe

I am from Eastern Europe myself, so the dismissive tone is unnecessary. Feminist laws were in place in my country, superficially encouraging emancipation of women, yet women never had a voice, the communist leadership was overwhelmigly male, and prejudices against women are still alive and well after almost 60 years of communism, and 2 decades of transition period. Legal equality is useless when it is not accompanied by societal dismantling of privileges. The feminism promoted by the communist party was a sham, so yes, Eastern European feminism needs more time to develop its voice. All I am saying is that, when it comes to intersectionality, it is unfair to compare the developing feminist movement in Eastern Europe with the mature feminism in the West, that has decades of academic study behind it. Also, I am not sure what Valie Export has to do with any of it? While her work is important, she is not Eastern European.

I may be wrong but I think

I may be wrong but I think she is suggesting that Export's use of her naked body in her performance work provides a more nuanced context with which to understand Femen's toplessness as a form of protest.

Although I fully agree with

Although I fully agree with your critique of the stereotypes plaguing the Eastern European woman, I should also add that another stereotypical representation often present in the western media / film is that of a big, bulky, country "baba" that wears rugged clothes and is not to be fucked with. Altho I specifically like this representation over the prostiture one, I am a bit discouraged by the narrow portrayal of my Eastern European sisters. Now, I think it is also valid to say that the "history" of Eastern European feminism is different and to understand Femen, once must understand the historical context. I have to agree with the other poster (anon), that the soviet era of the so called gender equality has confused us all with the protrayal of strong working women, but which was but a surface propaganda . However, given the misunderstanding around the EE feminism , I would say that the methods used by groups like Femen often mull the waters and dilute the important message that they are trying to pass on. They are playing into the stereotype of the "slut", the "mail order bride". Their naked bodies may be sign of sexual liberation and assertiveness but do you think this message gets accross? And in a place where "feminism" has such a negative connotation and has not been acdemized at length, they are only playing into the negative perception of feminism. So to the average eastern european audience, feminsist are either crazy emasculate catsrating bitches, or aging childless women, or crazy naked sluts. Where is the happy medium , where is the visibility of the women who are actually in the trenches advancing the rights of women ?

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