By Melissa Silverstein | Women and Hollywood May 2, 2014 at 11:57AM
Ukraine is Not a Brothel is a portrait of Ukraine's topless feminist sensation, Femen, which has stirred up a press frenzy across Europe. Outraged by the world's image of Ukrainian women as either brides for sale or commodities of sex tourism, FEMEN bare their breasts in protest. Ukraine Is Not A Brothel offers an intimate glimpse inside the world's most provocative feminist organization. A movement that began in the snow-filled streets of a corrupt, post-Soviet Ukraine, Femen's naked war against patriarchy is gaining momentum internationally. Before they can take the world by storm, however, these bold and beautiful women must first confront the contradictory forces powering their own "titillating" feminist organization. (Press materials)
Melissa Silverstein spoke with Brothel director Kitty Green about Femen's origins, its success in raising awareness of women's rights in Ukraine, and how its activists and the organization has have evolved beyond the way it began.
I found your film provocative, confusing, and anger-provoking. It really brings up fundamental questions about what is feminism. How did you got involved with Femen?
I had already seen the girls in the newspaper in Australia. I'd seen a photo of Sasha topless with a sign saying "Ukraine is not a brothel." I thought it was a really amazing image: I loved the contradiction in it. It was strange, bizarre -- a very provocative image.
My grandmother is Ukrainian. I just was visiting relatives in Ukraine, tracing the family tree, and when I was there, I tracked them down and said, "Can I shoot a protest?" I shot them protesting in Maidan, which has been in the headlines recently. I shot them and said, "Can I keep coming?" They kept inviting me back, and I filmed probably over 100 protests in the 14 months I spent with them.
There are almost two different films in here. There's the first part, which is really about the girls, and then the second part, when you bring in Victor, the misogynistic, patriarchal so- called leader of Femen. Tell me a little bit about why you made the big reveal about Victor almost 45 minutes into your 80-minute movie?
It traces the journey that I went on, in that I arrived with noble ideas about making a film about feminism, and maybe their methods were a little bit contradictory and maybe I didn't agree with it 100 percent, but I thought it was noble that they were pursuing this in some way, and I thought it was lovely. I thought they were a little naive. And then as I learned more about how the group is run -- it probably took me about four to five months to figure out who Victor was and his involvement.
I speak Ukrainian and he speaks Russian, so I couldn't really understand what he was saying to them, and he'd be in the shadows a little bit. As they trusted me, I got to see more of the extent of his power over them. It was really troubling. I asked myself, "How do I keep making this film if there's this abusive patriarch at the helm?" I had to make a call -- do I just give up and go home because this isn't the film I thought it would be, or do I keep pursuing this and see where the girls go and see if they're ready to break free from him?
I could sense that they were ready for change and ready to take a step forward, so I poked and prodded and asked questions that made them question their own objectification.
Do they really believe that by taking off their clothing with feminist messages written across their chest, that this is feminism? Was taking off their clothing an idea that came from the young women?
I don't know how much Victor was involved in those early decisions about whether to take their tops off or not. The girls claim he wasn't involved; I think he was more involved than they're claiming. It's a tough one.
It's a weird thing to say -- "Is it feminism?" What they are doing for the Ukraine -- they're raising awareness. They're getting girls talking about feminism in Ukraine. Before, nobody spoke about it, and young girls didn't even know what it was. It's not a dirty word anymore. It's spoken about down the streets. They're talking about women's issues. That's feminist. Their methods may be going against some feminist principles, but what they are aiming to do is raise awareness about women's rights in Ukraine and they've been successful in that.How did you get this amazing access to these young women?
Trust. I'm a young woman myself. I was living with them. Me and five other girls in a two bedroom apartment in Kiev. We crammed in, and I was really one of the girls in a lot of ways. I didn't have any money, so it was very low-budget. In some senses I became their videographer. I would shoot their protests, give them the footage straight away, and they'd put it up on their website.
I was in the belly of the beast in a lot of ways. People kept saying to me, "Don't get too close to them. You'll lose all your objectivity," but for some reason I could sense that there was a story there. It is about trust, and getting them to trust me, and to go, "Okay, I want to tell the story this way: I want to reveal some of these secrets, and in the end you'll benefit from it, and hopefully we can all move forward." In the end, they agreed to let me do that -- reluctantly.
There were some frightening moments in the documentary, but the most frightening moment was the protest in Belarus. Tell me why the decision was made to go to another country to do this protest, and if it was their decision.
Victor doesn't force them, or put them on the train. They choose to go to Belarus themselves. I chose to go. I shot the protest and was arrested and abducted and subsequently deported. I chose to go after I emailed my dad and asked him to google how many foreign journalists have been kidnapped in Belarus. He googled it and not that many people had died, so we were like, "Maybe I'll be ok." I took the risk.
I think the girls get inspired by each other. If everyone's onboard, they rise to the challenge. They get excited about the cause. Victor's power -- I mean, he is powerful and I think he would have threatened them in some way, but he's not going to force them into a life-threatening situation. He's not that evil. He's an evil guy, but he's not that evil. I mean, it was the right time: the girls were looking to do something and branch out. They'd always been interested in Belarus. It's a very closed-off country; they call it Europe's last dictatorship. They'd really wanted to do something there for a while, and the timing was right, so they just went for it.
Maybe that was naive, but there was a lot of press that came out of that incident. We got a lot of emails saying, "I didn't know what was going on in Belarus until this protest, so thank you for that." Again, raising awareness is what they do best.
Does Victor make money from these things? Because they don't look like they're any making money doing anything.
There's some money in Femen. A few main lead players get a wage -- a really small one.From whom?
In the film it talks about donations from sex tourists and men on Facebook, and whatnot. I'd say that's the bulk of it. They get money for different things. They had a book about them. Money flows in in bits and pieces in different ways. They sell a lot of merchandise. They do something called a Boob Print where they paint their breasts and push them against paper and people buy it for like 50 euros. All sorts of strange ways of making money.
I couldn't ask too many questions about the Ukrainian money because I didn't know how corrupt it was and how much the government was involved, and who was funding what. It was a little scary so I stayed away from that. I was more focusing on gender and this idea of feminism and patriarchy in Ukraine.
The girls talked about how they had Stockholm Syndrome. At times they weren't really able to make their own decisions. Were you aware of that? Do you feel that's true?
Yeah, I can see that. I was very aware of [Victor's] power and influence, and that the girls were really frightened of him at times. I was witness to that. He was quite abusive with them. He threw a chair at one of them once. It was all a bit awful. He would scream and swear a lot.
I was raised in a progressive suburb of Australia and I hadn't seen this kind of behavior from men before and I was really appalled by it. I couldn't handle that he'd be doing that at night and then the next day they'd be putting up a big banner saying, "This is the new feminism" and protesting. I was thinking, "How can this be the new feminism?" In some ways it upset me. It's in the film as well. You can see the control he has over them, and his anger -- his methods stem from scaring them a little bit into action.
So disturbing. What you think these women have accomplished in the Ukraine in terms of feminism?
Like I said before, what they've really done is make feminism sexy again in some ways. Ukrainians have a very negative view of the word "feminist." They have that real stereotype -- that butch view of what feminism is. These girls took the label feminism and made it something cool and talked about. They got people talking about feminism in a way that nobody had been talking about feminism in the Ukraine for a very long time.
It was more raising awareness and getting young girls in Ukraine to look up and go, "Hey, what are our rights? What can we do? How can we stand up for what's right?" The process now that you see going on in Ukraine is partly because groups like Femen, who were on the streets for the past four years, saying, "This government is corrupt. This isn't working." People get inspired by that and it inspires change.So you think that what these women have done over the last four years has helped set the stage for the fact that people are taking to the streets now in protest?
Definitely. I think they're a part of it. I think that a lot of groups came up over the past four years to complain about the government but Femen have been protesting endlessly, ceaselessly. Every day they are out there protesting, or at least they were when I was in the Ukraine.
I mean, Ukrainians wouldn't say, "Femen encouraged us to do it," but in some ways just seeing them out there and just seeing their dedication is exciting. Watching them on the streets is an adrenaline-filled experience. It's really great and cool, and inspiring in some ways.
You had a special thank you to Jane Campion in your credits. How was she was involved in the film?
A friend of mine was working on her television series Top of the Lake. He slipped her a DVD of the film and she watched an early cut. She called me up and gave me a bunch of advice on what to do with it. She said to show it in the cinema, fill the room, and other really great little tips and hints about being a female filmmaker and what the industry is like, and working with distributors.
Her support was really amazing. I've sent her emails back and forth ever since. It was really what I needed at the time -- for a strong female mentor to come in and say, "Hey. Cool. I like what you're doing." Just the encouragement and guidance really helped me get the film over the line and get it done.
You've gotten into a lot of festivals. What have the conversations been like after the screenings?
The Q&As are great. I don't like people watching the link because part of the experience is the Q&A at the end. They're really great. I've had the girls at pretty much every festival; Hot Docs is the first festival the girls haven't attended. The film leaves a lot of questions unanswered. I meant to do that, in a lot of ways: I wanted people to go out and seek answers: "What happened to this movement? Where have they gone?" That was the intention. The Q&As are really fun and lively.
We get a lot of questions about where the girls are now and what's happened since. I'm really proud to be able to say the girls have moved forward and have started a feminist national branch in Paris that's doing really well. I'm really proud of what they've achieved since the film.
So they are still continuing their work but in different ways, away from Victor?
Yeah, definitely. Inna moved to Paris and started Femen in France, and five other girls have come to join her. Firstly, they wanted to move away, but also the political pressure in Ukraine got to the point where they could barely protest without being arrested straight away. It became also impossible to protest there. That was right before the crackdown and right before the big protest about it in Maidan.
So the girls have taken their protests international. They're kind of doing things all over the world now. Branches are popping up everywhere. I'm kind of proud because Inna and Sasha have been spearheading that and that's really cool. I always knew they had the capability, that they could do it: they had the talents and the brains to do it. It's great to see them actually take the reins.
Do they take their shirts off still?
Yeah. That's their thing. They'll do that forever.
When you're over 25, your boobs are a little different.
Yeah, but women of all shapes and sizes are part of it now.
It's really changed. The whole organization and structure has changed. They're reclaiming their bodies in a different way. It's less sexualized. It's kind of aggressive in some ways -- they call it extremism. It's interesting and it's changing all the time; it's really fascinating to watch.
So it's more feminist now than it was?
Oh yeah, definitely. Firstly, there's a woman at the helm and it's run by women. Moving to Paris and meeting other young feminists has really helped, and all of the feminists from all over the world working together now and collaborating. I think the girls have seen things and are more experienced now; they understand a little more what feminism is and what's productive and what gets them results. They're doing well.
What advice do you have for other women filmmakers who want to do what you do?
Just do it. That's been my advice all along. I had a DSLR and and a little set of radio mics. That's all I had. I just moved to Ukraine and lived for nothing with these girls on their apartment floor basically. I think anyone can do it.
You just have to be tough and throw yourself into the deep end and see what happens. I think the hardest thing is to get funding and people on board, especially producers. People get held up and they never end up making the film because they're waiting for money or this or that. If you can throw yourself in somehow and find a way to survive -- we ate really badly, rice and carrots for a year -- just a way to get it done. The more women we can have to have the guts to just grab a camera and start shooting stuff, the better.
Previously: SXSW Women Directors: Meet Kitty Green