Ukraine Is Not a Brothel: Q&A with director Kitty Green

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

By Alexandra Theodorakidis

Femen, a radical feminist group from Ukraine, has been attracting much attention over the past few years as their movement spreads across Europe. Known for their provocative methods and topless protests, they use what they call “sextremism” to reclaim their bodies, and resist male objectification and oppression. Their quest to fight patriarchy has drawn mixed reactions, with some critics accusing Femen of being culturally insensitive and failing to represent different experiences of feminism.

Australian filmmaker Kitty Green’s documentary Ukraine Is Not a Brothel explores the origins of Femen and the struggles the organization has had to overcome, both internally and externally. “It’s portraits of women and their experiences,” she says of her film. Green spent a year living with the women of Femen and was able to get “honest, raw and authentic” material that shows what they have had to suffer through in order to make Femen what it is today.

Ukraine Is Not a Brothel was featured in the 2014 Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto, and CJFE got the chance to speak with Green about Femen, feminism, and her views on free expression.

*Warning: This interview contains spoilers*

What initially interested you in Femen?
I was on a subway in Melbourne and I saw a newspaper on the ground with a picture of one of the girls on the front, topless, holding a sign that read “Ukraine Is Not a Brothel.” There was just such naivety and strength in that photo and I found it intriguing.

Femen uses a tactic they call “sextremism” or using their female sexuality to rebel against patriarchy, which some women find offensive. Do you believe Femen represents the interests of all women, or only a select few?
It’s gotten better. The film focused on when they were in Ukraine, when it was run by a man, essentially, and he was an egomaniac, and it was his idea of what feminism is. Since then it’s expanded around Europe and the girls have taken control again. It’s a very different organization and now anyone is free to be a member. You don’t have to be sexy to be in Femen anymore, that was the old Femen. It’s about the history and what got them naked in the streets initially. Any woman can be represented by Femen now.

You’ve mentioned Femen was initially run by a man, named Victor Svyatski, who described himself as the “patriarch of new feminism.” Did his involvement in the organization change your opinion of Femen?
Completely, but that was a few months in so it took me a little while to discover exactly what his role was and once I did it was really upsetting. I came to make a film about a feminist movement and here was this guy that was apparently in control of it all and quite manipulative and insane in some ways. I was forced to make a choice, do I want to go home or do I keep going with this and see if I can get this story on tape. I think the story needs to be told, and these girls, I could see that they were ready to move forward and to get rid of him and I could be there to capture it. I kept asking questions and I think that helps to have someone around that’s always questioning what you’re doing because it forces you to examine yourself.

How does Femen’s position on feminism compare to your own?
I was brought up in a progressive, normal suburb in Melbourne; all the women around me worked. I never knew about gender inequality, I never really experienced it, so for me going to Ukraine came as a real shock because I was like “oh right, we’re not equal.” So I guess I’m innately a feminist but I wasn’t actively a feminist because I never knew I had to be. All of a sudden when I got to Ukraine I was like “oh, wow, I really have to stand up for what I believe in here.” It’s a whole other world. I’m just for any kind of woman standing up for what she believes in and any kind of promotion of women’s rights around the world, and so is Femen, and that’s where we align.

In terms of freedom of expression, what was it like working in Ukraine? Were there times when you felt unsafe or like you didn't have the freedom to film something?
I was secretly filming Victor the whole time and I wasn’t supposed to be so that was pretty terrifying. I used to hide the footage under my pillow. But the whole place was scary in terms of filming. I would get arrested a lot, and they would have no reason to arrest me, legally they couldn’t do anything, they just did it to threaten, to scare me.

How did this compare to your experience being abducted in Belarus?
I went to Belarus for a weekend, to film a protest and got arrested. They have absolutely no freedom of the press there and no freedom of speech. Belarus is Europe’s last dictatorship, that’s what they call it. I was by myself at the police station and then I was taken in a blacked out van to another location and I’ve always heard you never want to go to the second location so I thought that was a bad sign, but then I was deported. But the girls went through a lot more than I did. I think they suffered a lot more and I was a little luckier. I had an Australian passport so it becomes very diplomatic and a big issue if they keep me for too long. I can call the embassy and they don’t want that. I realized they were just trying to threaten me.

What role has Femen played in the current situation in Ukraine? Are they involved in protests?
They had to leave unfortunately a few months ago; they just had to get out of there. It was getting harder to protest, with government crackdowns. But they’ve been on the streets for the last four years protesting Yanukovych so people saw them on the streets and were kind of inspired and encouraged by that. I think they played a role in what went down. Ukrainians have started to open up and express their anger. Femen is definitely the most famous protest group in Ukraine so I think they have had more of an impact than the press realizes. They just see them as these naked girls but they’re getting a point across.

What does free expression mean to you?
It’s so important for everyone everywhere. I don’t like when people criticize Femen and tear them down for what they do. They’re out there and they’re saying things and they’re changing the landscape in some way, even if it’s a negative thing it can still be a point for discussion. I think we should be discussing these things and I think we should be having these conversations; the more people that can say even the craziest things out loud or can express themselves freely, the better. Human rights film festivals would often overlook my film because it doesn’t have a specific agenda and it’s examining feminism from different angles. If it doesn’t have one side they don’t like it. But I think you should be able to examine every side and you should be able to show every point of view. The more perspectives you can get the better, it’s a more complex and more honest picture of what‘s going on. I don’t know what freedom of expression means but I know it’s important.

This interview has been edited for brevity.

Alexandra Theodorakidis is CJFE’s Communications and Publications Assistant and a graduate of the Ryerson School of Journalism.