by Helen Earnshaw |
21 October 2013
Kitty Green is making her feature film directorial debut with her documentary Ukraine Is Not A Brothel: a film about activist organisation Femen.
The movie has screened at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, and that was where we met up with the filmmaker to chat about the project, spending time with the members of the group and what lies ahead.
- Ukraine Is Not A Brothel is your latest film, so can you tell me a little bit about it?
It is a film about topless feminist movement in the Ukraine. When they first started out, they were campaigning against prostitution on the Ukraine: since then it has gone on to patriarchy around the world. They do that by stripping off and running around on the streets.
- The movie follows the activist organisation Femen, so how did you first hear about them? And what sparked your interest?
My grandmother is Ukrainian, so I went to visit her and I was doing a family tree and travelling around the country. While I was there, I saw an article about them and I thought it sounded weird. Therefore, I found where they were protesting in Kyiv and I went and shot a protest: I had my camera with me.
I enjoyed it, it was a lot of fun and they were screaming and being dragged away by the police. It was exciting, wonderful, and full of adrenaline. I was hooked. I showed them the footage that I had shot, they liked. It and kept inviting me back to shoot more. I stayed for about fourteen months, lived with them, and followed their movements.
- That does lead into my next question. I wondered how easy it was to get into their world and how open they were to you making a movie?
It is a tough one. They trusted me: I am no sure they should have (laughs). I was living with them and I suppose I became their videographer in many ways, so I was part of the movement and inside the belly of the beast. I was shooting the protests for them, and they wanted me there: I would give them the footage and they would put it on their website.
In a way, I was part of the whole machine and so I got to know more about the movement and the secrets that they were hiding from the press. I love the girls, like family: six of is lived in a two-room apartment and so we were sharing rooms and beds. Once you get to know someone well enough you do trust them.
- I suppose during the research period you do build an idea of what the organisation is about and what the people in it are like. How did that opinion change as you got to know them and saw what they were doing first hand?
I remember seeing a photo of one of the girls in a newspaper, she was topless and holding a sign that said ‘the Ukraine is not a brothel’. I thought that was a beautifully naive image. She was trying her best but the methods were a little contradictory: but I was fascinated by those contradictions.
I didn’t see it as a legitimate feminist movement when I arrived, but when you are working with them, seeing how hard they are working and how much they have dedicated their lives to this cause, you do get sucked up by it.
After a little while, I discovered the truth of just how this organisation was run and I did lose a little bit of faith. Now, I have complete faith on them. They have started a new Femen in Paris and they are free and stronger than they have ever been.
- You said earlier that you were in the ‘belly of the beast’ during your time with them, so what was it like being in the middle of all that?
It was scary at times as Ukraine is not that safe. I was arrested about eight times and abducted by the KGB. We were living with this constant paranoia and there were people tapping our phones, so you so band together. I was a member of the team really.
In order to make the film I had to take a step backwards and be quite objective: it was only towards the end of filming when I stood back and said ‘answer all of these questions’. However, for the first eight months I was almost a Femen girl myself.
- You have already mentioned the KGB already and I was wondering how surprised you were to see them interested in an organisation like this?
It is an interesting one. Ukraine does not have KGB, but we had gone to Belarus: I was told ‘stay away from Belarus or you are going to die. Journalists go missing all the time there.’ I was terrified.
I googled how many foreign journalists had died in Belarus, and I found out that no foreign journalists had disappeared: lots of others had. I understood that there was a threat in Belarus because there isn’t much freedom of the press, they don’t like journalists and they don’t like protesters: they don’t like anything that is going to upset the norm. Therefore, for that country particularly, it was pretty obvious that it was going to be slightly hair-raising.
In the Ukraine, I don’t know. I am not sure that the government see them as a real threat: they are more of a threat to the credibility of the government and it is more like saving face for them. I think they are more of an annoyance because they are always interrupting all of these events.
They have been pretty harsh with them recently. To be honest, they have got pretty harsh with them in the last year, but I haven’t been in the Ukraine so I don’t really know who it has changed.
- This movie marks your feature film directorial debut, so how have you found taking up the director’s chair?
I went to film school and I worked at the ABC, so I had done my fair share of bits and pieces. I enjoyed it. We did it with no money, but I still think that that is its strength as it is intimate and honest: quite often, it was just my camera and me. The strength of the film lies in the honesty and the revelations of the girls coming to terms with some of the contradictions of the movement.
- This organisation has an interesting beginning as it was set up by Victor Svyatski, so what did you make of him and his role?
This is all controversial. When I arrived, I thought that it was just a bunch of girls, but as I got to know them, I got to see this presence and this figure that was always in the background. I speak Ukrainian and he speaks Russian, so I couldn’t really understand what he was saying when he was speaking to the girls: a few months in I had learnt enough Russian so I got it.
I realised how influential his role was and what was going on. As they started to trust me more I got to learn more about his role. He really did have the reigns and he did control that organisation: when I was there, he was in control. It was quite a scary thing to see this quite abusive and scary man running a feminist organisation: he would yell at them and then the next day they would be holding placards saying ‘the new feminism’ and I just thought ’this is a strange situation to be in’.
I just thought that it was a little sad. When I found out about him I thought ’I will stop making the film. I don’t want to make this film if this movement isn’t what I thought it was’. But then part of me thought ’that f I could kind of reveal what is going here and shed some light on it maybe they can grow from it - not these girls but other women can learn rising up against these patriarchal forces.
- You do have the chance to talk to him, so what was your opinion of him one on one? In addition, how keen was he to feature in the film?
He didn’t want to be in it and I was told not to film him the whole time that I was there. So I was secretly filming him for that whole year when ever I could: I would have the camera down low and get bits and pieces. I pretended that I wasn’t interested in him at all.
I got enough footage to make a film without him in it, then I said to the girls ‘bye, it was nice to meet you’ and left. I came back and called him up and said ‘I have all this footage of you, do you want to comment on it or not?’ He has done so much for this movement and I think that he did want a little bit of recognition. He has a bit of an ego, he wanted to be in the spotlight, and I was his chance to be out there and to be known. I was surprised but he did agree to do it.
We sat down for about six hours and discussed everything: it was the first time that he had sat in front of a camera so it was all strange for him. Because it was the first time that he had spoken to someone publicly, it is a raw interview and it is something that I don’t think anyone can replicate. He has done just one interview since and I keep getting emails saying ‘can you get his address?’ And I am like ‘I am not in contact with him anymore, and I don’t want to be.
- You have fourteen months worth of footage and six hours with Svyatski alone, so can you talk a bit about the editing process and pulling all of this footage together?
I have seven hundred hours of footage. Because I was making two films: I was making what they wanted me to make, which was a propaganda Femen film, and I was making my honest film of them. So I knew what was going into the trash and I was keeping.
I edited it myself and so when I got to that process it was about chucking a lot of that out and using just a small percentage of what I thought was worthy. It was a tough process and it took me a year to go through it - and it is in Ukrainian and Russian, so it is not easy to get someone on board to help you.
- How have you found the response to the film so far?
We screened at Venice Film Festival the other week and we got some really good reviews: I was so thrilled by that. I was surprised in many ways, I am not sure why, but it was lovely to get such good feedback. I think it plays well in cinemas as it cinematic documentary and it is not really TV in its style. The interesting thing is what happened with the press… we have had a nice reception to the film, but not many people have seen the film.
There were many articles that were quite cutting and lifted a few lines and built a narrative around it: the film isn’t really about that as it has more depth. It is not about this man who controls women and he does it for sex - which is was the Italian newspapers were reporting. The reception has been interesting both press wise and audience wise: they are two very different things.
- What do you hope people will take away from this film when they see it?
I think it is a film about women standing up and fighting for their rights against patriarchal forces: I think that is what Femen do and that is what they had to do to change. I got to document that phase where they are growing up and realising ‘this man is not in charge of anymore, we have to move forward’.
I was lucky enough to be there at the right time when they were coming to these realisations. I do hope that any young women can watch it and go ‘if these girls can do it and get out of the clutches of this evil man, hopefully I can to. I hope that it is inspiring if nothing else. I know that the girls have been inspired by the journey and they are doing great things now independently.
- Finally, what is next for you?
I have got a really crazy Middles East project coming up, which I can’t talk too much about. I want to keep making films about women’s rights and trying to make them palatable.
It’s finding a wrapper for it that is interesting and fun and allows you to talk about these issues without it being bogged down in some boring discourse. We will see, what ever it is going to be it is going to be weird (laughs).