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Film Lays Bare Femen Contradictions

Ukraine -- Members of Crimean self-defence units block a topless activist from the Ukrainian feminist group Femen, who is taking part in an anti-war protest near the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol, March 6, 2014.
The scenes of young, beautiful, bare-chested women being dragged away by police have attracted considerable international media coverage over the last few years and brought prominence to the Ukrainian feminist organization Femen.

“Ukraine Is Not A Brothel,” a documentary film by Australian director Kitty Green that was screened at the One World film festival held in Prague March 3-12, goes beyond Femen’s carefully staged protests and bare flesh to find out who the women of Femen are, what they want, and why they’ve chosen such a controversial method to achieve their aims.

“I’m very glad that this documentary did not portray Femen as black and white, because I think there are a lot of questions about why Femen appeared and what its actual goals are,” said RFE/RL Ukrainian Service Director Maryana Drach in a discussion with the audience after the film screened on March 6.

Green spent 14 months living with four of the Femen activists in a dilapidated Soviet-era apartment block in Kyiv. When asked by Green to elaborate on their goals of “fighting against patriarchy in all forms,” as stated in the film, the women, all in their early twenties, expressed a vague frustration with sex tourism in Ukraine and with the general abasement of women in Ukrainian society.

While the theoretical basis of their movement may be a bit underdeveloped, their marketing strategy is anything but. They are funded through T-shirt sales and have cultivated a set of symbols —floral crowns, body paint, and a Cyrillic character that they say resembles breasts—to identify their brand. They are unapologetic about allowing only their young, attractive members to represent Femen at protests.

If a clear articulation of their philosophy is missed by the viewer, a sense of the women’s defiance is not. The film follows them to several of their protests, where they scale the wall of the Indian embassy and cling half-naked to a bell tower’s shaky scaffolding. They are spit on and insulted by bystanders, and inevitably roughed up as police scurry them away into custody.

The height of the drama comes when the women travel to Belarus, Europe’s so-called “last dictatorship,” to protest in front of the KGB headquarters in Minsk. Green wrote on her website that she was detained in the KGB building for several hours during the protest before being put on a train to Lithuania with a government minder. Her camera was returned to her, but her footage was destroyed. The Femen activists say they were driven to a wooded area near the Ukrainian border where they were stripped, beaten, and told to walk home.
U.S. - Inna Shevchenko rips a Russian flag as she joins topless activists of the Ukrainian protest group Femen demonstrates against Russian intervention in Ukraine and in support of US sanctions on March 6, 2014 in New York's Times Square.
U.S. - Inna Shevchenko rips a Russian flag as she joins topless activists of the Ukrainian protest group Femen demonstrates against Russian intervention in Ukraine and in support of US sanctions on March 6, 2014 in New York's Times Square.
In addition to the danger of their activities, there is another ominous presence haunting the film. The opening shot shows a man seated on a couch wearing a macabre rabbit mask and cursing in broken English. His voice is overheard again in Skype conversations with the women, in which he dictates what they should chant, what they should paint on their bodies, and how they should behave towards the police. He debriefs them after the protests, calling them “idiots” and deriding mistakes he’s found in their performance.

We finally meet Viktor Sviatski, who the women say approached them proclaiming himself to be the “father of new feminism,” and who is depicted in the film as the true leader of Femen. In his interview with Green, Sviatski shrugs off the paradox of being, in effect, the patriarch of a group that claims to fight patriarchy. The women of Femen lament the need for his leadership; some say they hope to shake his influence with a new start in France, where key members of the group have now immigrated, and where they have apparently remained until recently, despite months of upheaval in Ukraine.

“For me the big question is what they were doing when the Maidan demonstrations started in Kyiv at the end of November,” said Drach. “As a Ukrainian I wonder why they weren’t trying, even from abroad, to express their opinions about these events which have really shaken Ukraine over the last few months.”

At the end of the discussion, event organizers asked the audience to express their opinion of Femen’s tactics by a show of hands, with the overwhelming majority of viewers voting “on the fence.”

It seems the audience, like Drach, felt the film raised as many questions as it answered.

--Emily Thompson