“The world sees our country as one big brothel. Tourists come here to find whores. We believe that we need to protest against this ... [so] the world sees Ukraine as a country where naked girls protest, not sell their bodies.” Those are the words of Sasha, the ostensible protagonist of Kitty Green’s bold, insightful documentary “Ukraine is Not a Brothel.” A film about FEMEN, a collective Wikipedia describes, with typical Wiki short-sightedness, as “an exhibitionist feminist protest group founded in Ukraine in 2008,” the documentary is one of the most notable films making its Canadian premiere at Hot Docs, Toronto’s annual documentary film festival.
For obvious reasons, spring 2014 is a wise time to be screen a documentary with “Ukraine” in the title. And this particular story is likely to make an impact worldwide, especially at Hot Docs. North America’s largest documentary fest invariably features a stunningly diverse cross-section of films and genres — this year features the international premiere of Brian Knappenberger’s “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story Of Aaron Swartz,” Joe Berlinger’s “Whitey,” and docs about George Takei and Alice Cooper — and I expect Green’s project will rank among its most buzzed-about. Minus some disappointing changes in perspective near film’s end, this is a fine, effective creation that succeeds in bringing the FEMEN aesthetic to the masses.
“Ukraine is Not a Brothel” opens in Lynch-ian fashion on the rather disturbing image of a man in rabbit mask — we will discover the identity of this strange, shadowy figure later — before joining a blonde woman in the back of a dreary taxi, the film’s title written across her chest. This is Sasha, and we next see her in the shower, washing the words away. It’s a telling shot, and an important one. Green presents female nudity in matter-of-fact fashion, a fittingly subversive move. After all, nudity is key to the FEMEN aesthetic, and when wielded in public (a CNN clip in the film states, “their weapons are bare breasts”) it has the impact of a bazooka.
Early in the film, Green’s camera shoots FEMEN protestors as they ring a church bell, topless, flowers in their hair, and it’s a stunning moment. Such a protest would make waves in any country, but here, in the Ukraine, the result is chaos. Police typically break things up in violent fashion; we see girls beaten and slammed to the pavement. And many members of the public-at-large greet them with outrage and piercing anger. “Whores! Prostitutes!” yells a sour-faced Burt Young look-alike, perhaps unaware that these words are at the heart of what FEMEN is protesting against. As Sasha says early in the film, “99 percent of Ukrainian girls don’t know what feminism is... They are raised with a naive view of the world.” Many women, she says, left Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union to look for work in Europe “but wound up in brothels. Many Ukranian girls were bought and sold as sex slaves.” The nation is overwhelmed by the forces of patriarchy and religious intolerance, and that makes FEMEN not just desperately needed, but wildly powerful.
Green establishes what FEMEN is and what it does early on (although it is limiting to distill FEMEN’s beliefs into just a sentence or two; reading through the group’s website, femen.org, is recommended pre- or post-film), and over the next hour introduces us to some of its members, providing us with a first-hand view of how strong the opposition is to the group’s actions. One particularly nightmarish post-protest scenario sees the girls stripped and sent into the woods. As a “Gossip Girl”-watching, Beyoncé-referencing member puts it, “the positive balances out the negative.” Green captures both sides, demonstrating the often joyous vibe that initially greets the protests, but also lingering on the bruises, and the physical and mental pain that can result.
About two-thirds of the way through, the film shifts gears, and, rather surprisingly, turns the focus to the controversial, domineering “founder” of FEMEN, the wild-eyed Victor. Some see him as a corrupting influence — one of the girl’s mothers says all she sees is “the sick brain of Victor” — while others consider his role a necessity. When Green asks, “Who is the leader of Femen?” Victor is often the answer. But there is an interesting paradox at play here, of course, and Victor himself recognizes this: “My influence on the girls is the very same as the patriarchal influence against which we are protesting. I understand this.” He comes across as condescending and nasty, at one point screaming at the girls over some misunderstanding and finishing the conversation with “That’s it. Lesson over.”
While he is a fascinating figure, turning the spotlight away from the girls to Victor hurts the film. Perhaps including so much of Victor so near the film’s end is part of the problem; he dominates the final third, and lacks the heart the female members of FEMEN displayed throughout the film. Thankfully, Green shifts back to Sasha, the film’s clearest, strongest voice, ending with her breaking free of Victor and taking the ideals of FEMEN to Paris. It’s a powerful conclusion, and despite her leaving Ukraine, it does not feel like a defeat. Instead, this seems like the moment FEMEN truly moved from a “local” movement to something truly global. And Green was there to capture it, a particularly impressive feat for a debut feature. “In Paris, I can build my own FEMEN, Sasha says. “This is the end. No, it’s not the end.” As the film draws to a close, Sasha is in the back of a Paris taxi, staring straight at the camera and looking rejuvenated — even exhilarated. Green’s camera picks up a large bruise on her shoulder, a wonderful, telling detail. Sasha and the girls of FEMEN may be black-and-blue, but they are most certainly not defeated. [B+]