Ukraine Is Not a Brothel (Ukraina ne bordel): Film Review

The topless feminist protest movement Femen from Ukraine is virtually X-rayed in Ukraine Is Not a Brothel (Ukraina ne bordel), the revealing and powerful documentary debut of Australian director Kitty Green.

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The film’s biggest shock or eye-opener, widely reported after the film had its world premiere at the recent Venice Film Festival, is that not only a shady male specter, Victor Svyatski, is behind the group but that this unknown Svengali, who is one of Green’s numerous insider interviewees, turns out to be practically a role model for the dominant patriarchic male society that the bottle blond, long-legged and eyebrow-plucked feminists so aggressively denounce in their famous, bare-breasted protests.

Festivals will want to get their hands on this hot item, which not only examines the complexity and many paradoxes of Femen in a very accessible way but also reveals that Green, who also edited as well as co-shot the film during her 14-month stay with the Femen girls in Kyiv, has clearly got a knack for finding interesting subjects and imbuing her material with some genuine cinematic scope.

Green, a former Australian Broadcasting Corporation employee with Ukrainian roots, kicks off with an enigmatic shot of a man wearing a rabbit mask before showing a supermodel-gorgeous woman, clearly bare-chested under a heavy winter coat, sitting in a taxi that’s driving her home, where she’ll wash off the text written in paint on her body. Boney M’s Rasputin plays on the soundtrack, if probably not in the taxi, which, as the camera highlights by focusing on the male driver and the image of a male saint dangling underneath the rearview mirror, quietly represents exactly the kind of dogmatic, male-dominated society that the young Femen ladies protest against.

The film builds up its image of Femen with carefully selected and edited interview material and footage of some of their protests, which invariably end with the women being aggressively dragged away and manhandled by male policemen, which only proves their point that women are practically slaves in a male-dominated society. One of their early slogans, “Ukraine Is Not a Brothel,” not only provided the title for this documentary but also points in the direction of one of the reasons Femen was created in the first place: to dispel the notion that Ukrainian women were all either sex slaves abroad or prostitutes at home.

“I’m Beyonce,” says one of the Femen members about how she feels when on camera, and clearly, many of the girls feel that there’s a show and exhibitionist element that’s just as important as the political impact and meaning of their carefully engineered protests. The girls all look gorgeous except for one member whose Rubenesque figure is used ironically -- she’s branded a “sex bomb” in a bomb scare-like protest at a train station -- and who, in her candid interview, reveals just how important looks are for Femen.

A nifty montage featuring headlines and articles about their protests coins the phrase “political porn” and there is indeed something slightly weird and paradoxical about a pro-female liberation protest group that uses bare breasts to draw the male gaze to their position as the subjugated sex. There is some kind of weird poetic irony in finding out, then, that Svyatski is the brain behind the protests, which have become more generally anti-establishment and anti-religion since Femen’s inception in 2008.

This revelation is carefully planned by Green, who edits in hints throughout the material that a male presence -- already spied, albeit masked, in the opening shot -- operates behind the scenes, with many of the Femen girls being interrupted during their interviews by Skype calls from Victor. When, around the 50-minute mark, he finally gets his say and even takes off his mask, he rather shockingly denounces his Femen protesters as “weak” and admits that he himself is a “patriarchal influence” on the girls even though this is exactly what his protests, executed by the girls, are trying to overthrow.

Green beautifully allows the material (and the characters) to speak for itself, revealing just how full of paradoxes and steeped in a male-chauvinist attitude even theoretically feminist movements can be, further underlining why they are necessary. That said, a postscript that recounts what happened after the documentary wrapped would be useful, since the open-ended finally doesn’t make it clear that Victor has since been forced to leave Femen and the group has relocated to Paris (something only vaguely hinted at), also because the Ukrainian authorities have criminally charged the Femen members, which would mean the girls could spend years in a Kyiv jail -- likened to Guantanamo Bay by their young lawyer -- if they're ever arrested again.

Technically, the film is handsomely assembled.  

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition -- Special Screening) 

Production companies: Kitty Green, Noise Light, Camera Club

Writer-Director: Kitty Green

Producers: Kitty Green, Jonathan auf der Heide, Michael Latham

Director of photography: Michael Latham

Music: Jed Palmer, Zoe Barry

Editor: Kitty Green

Sales: Cinephil

No rating, 78 minutes.

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The mission of the "FEMEN" movement is to create the most favourable conditions for the young women to join up into a social group with the general idea of the mutual support and social responsibility, helping to reveal the talents of each member of the movement.

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