The documentary Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, directed by Kitty Green, opens in a most unusual way. A man is seated on a couch, his face obscured by a demented-looking rabbit mask. It resembles the apparition in Donnie Darko. He unleashes a wide grin.
This camouflaged huckster is Victor Svyatski and he is the alleged mastermind behind Femen, a Ukrainian organization comprised of topless female protesters. The striking (mostly blond) women, sporting floral headdresses, paint messages on their chests and backs, describe themselves as “sextremists” whose mission is “fighting patriarchy in its three manifestations: sexual exploitation of women, dictatorship, and religion.” The protest group, founded in 2008, has gained notoriety for its topless actions, which have included: a pro-choice demonstration against anti-abortion legislation at the belfry of Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, ringing the church bells (topless); flashing Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel at the Hanover trade fair; and chainsawing down a large wooden crucifix in Kiev in support of Pussy Riot, to name a few. Femen has also, just recently, invaded U.S. shores.
The Australian director spent a year living in a cramped apartment in Kiev with four members of Femen, interviewing them and filming their protests. The film, making its U.S. premiere at SXSW, paints a bleak portrait of female life in Ukraine—a life of second-class citizenship under patriarchal rule.
“The world sees our country as one big brothel,” says Inna Schevchenko, a member of Femen. “Tourists come here to find whores. We believe that we need to protest against this. We need to do everything we can so the world sees Ukraine as a country where naked girls protest, not sell their bodies.”
We’re treated to montages of topless Femen protesters being dragged and beaten by mobs of police and rowdy bystanders, who yell, “Whores! Prostitutes!” We see footage of Femen members ringing the church bells at the belfry of Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, before being taken away by police. A Femen member named Oksana tells a horrible story about being groped at a police station. And Inna recounts her horrifying ordeal after several members of Femen were captured while protesting outside the KGB headquarters in Belarus. The women had their hands tied, were thrown into a van, and dragged deep into a forest by seven masked men, who were filming them. They were ordered to strip naked and face their backs to them. They thought they were going to be raped. A man doused Inna with oil. She thought she was going to be burned to death. Then, the men removed the women from the van, pointed to a river, and said, “There, you whores, look—the border is that way. If you make it through that forest, you’ll be back in Ukraine.” The naked women sprinted four kilometers to safety.
The women are, it seems, spreading a message of female empowerment amid a crippling system that denies them the pursuit of happiness. They’re funded by charitable donations (from mostly men), and the organization claims to have been founded by Anna Hutsol, a photographer and videographer with a short coif of red hair.
But from the beginning, the film plants kernels of doubt in the viewer about the topless organization’s motives. We meet Irina, one of several women who were booted from Femen for refusing to go topless, or who didn’t have the right figure. We see her observing photos of the first Femen protest on her computer—a very PG-rated scene featuring women in winter coats and scarves holding a giant pink sheet that reads: “FEMEN.” She calls the topless shtick a “marketing strategy,” and compares it to McDonald’s. We meet a member of Femen who’s a stripper struggling with the “hypocritical” nature of performing for “sex tourists” at night and protesting with Femen during the day. Then, we’re taken along on a Femen mission in Istanbul financed by a man named “John”—a creepy playboy businessman in a pinstripe suit with pink pocket square who ogles the topless beauties. He’s made his fortune selling lingerie.
There’s also a mystery man named “Victor” who keeps pestering the women with texts and video chats, all of which are met with dread. We hear the same man’s voice barking orders at Anna about her shooting style. Many of the women contemplate quitting Femen because of “Victor.” The women describe his influence as “Stockholm Syndrome.” When he speaks, they listen. They describe it as like, “a wife dependent on a husband that drinks and beats her.” He yells at them. Berates them. Calls them “fucking idiots.” One member recalls overhearing him introducing himself by saying, “I am the father of New Feminism.”
The real revelations begin to pop up at the film’s halfway point. One of the Femen protesters, Sasha, is Skyping with her disapproving mother, who threatens to expose Victor as the leader of Femen if she doesn’t come home. Later, she tells Green that Sasha “changed so much when she met Victor” and that Femen “started out as a nice, charitable organization” that put on concerts and events and donated the money to sick children, but now “all I see is the sick brain of Victor.”
Then comes a phone call between Victor and Inna. Victor is instructing his topless agent on how they will protest the 2012 Euro Cup, held in Ukraine. The conversation is as follows (Victor in italics):
Are we ready for tomorrow?
Yes I got everything done.
Well done. Ok, Inna, just between you and me, I’m putting you in charge of tomorrow’s protest. I can’t come and get Alexandra ready, you have to do it. The most important thing is to make sure Alexandra is ready. Also, if the police get close, then beat them with those sticks.
Just beat them?
Beat them on the backs. Don’t be scared. Those idiots won’t do anything. Alexandra, explain it all to her in detail. Tell her that, fuck, you know, we gave her $200 to get her here. Explain that. Be strong with her. Explain that after the last fucking protest disaster, if she doesn’t perform then she won’t be invited back. She can go fuck herself. And we won’t give her money for her ticket back. Be very strong with her. Very strong. And don’t let Anna talk to her. Alexandra will be dressed as a dictator. On her back, we should write, ‘Create History Together,’ in English.
Got it. What should we chant?
EURO CUP = KGB? Something very simple and translatable. EURO CUP = KGB. Or KGB 2012? Write these down.
Inna hangs up. She rolls her eyes, looks at the camera, and says, “Create history together.”
One hour into Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, Green sits down with Victor for an interview. He has the aforementioned rabbit mask over his head, but then removes it, and we see his face. He’s a slight man with bulging, intense eyes. He says he met Anna through a mutual friend and the two began discussing politics.
The film cuts to a very early, low-grade video of Anna on camera introducing Femen. But a man yelling stops the filming. He’s unimpressed with her on-camera skills, and criticizes her performance. That man is Victor.
“This patriarchal system, it takes everything away from women—every path, every prospective, if you like, and leaves women placed on a sort of sexual pedestal,” he says. “And I, like any other person, am a slave to that system… Yes, I’m a patriarch in an organization against patriarchy.”