What feminist needs a patriarch? Even the most radical topless activists, according to Australian film director Kitty Green’s debut documentary on the FEMEN movement. But its members have since cast off their Ukrainian male mentor and are now taking on the big issues without him.
Green’s documentary “Ukraine is not a brothel” is an intimate portrait of the feminist group FEMEN before it left its first home in Ukraine. The film not only reveals Victor Svyatski as the group’s mastermind – a shock to some, considering its strategy of noisy topless demonstrations - but also ends with a dramatic twist when the group’s leader, Inna Shevchenko, defies Svyatski and leaves Ukraine to set up a new headquarters in Paris.
“I grew up in a progressive Australian suburb, I wasn’t aware there was such a gender divide, and I really saw that when I got to Ukraine”, Green, 28, told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview at the 2013 London Film Festival. She saw that Ukrainian women had poor job prospects in a conservative society. “There weren’t many opportunities for them workwise. I was very surprised by that.”
When Green, who speaks Ukrainian, visited her Ukrainian grandmother, she saw a picture of FEMEN in the newspaper. “I thought it sounded interesting and crazy, I tracked them down in Kiev and shot a protest for them, she said. FEMEN later invited her back to shoot more protests for the group.
The title of her documentary, “Ukraine is not a brothel”, comes from a slogan waved at a FEMEN protest, accompanied by the screams of bare-breasted FEMEN members, declaring that they are not prostitutes.
“The whole world thinks Ukrainian women are prostitutes”, Alexandra 'Sasha' Shevchenko, co-founder of FEMEN, says in Green’s film.
The U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2013 states that Ukraine is a source, transit, and, increasingly, destination country for men, women and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking, and says Ukrainians themselves are trafficked from Ukraine to 16 countries.
TIME magazine reported recently that Ukrainian girls are driven into the sex trade by poverty and the lack of job opportunities. "The girls see themselves as victims of fate, but not of deception, so they don't ask for help," Time quotes Olga Kostyuk from Faith, Hope, Love - an anti-trafficking charity based in Odessa - as saying.
“I became more politically aware during my time in Ukraine, and that made me want to make films about women”, says Green. While shooting the film with a digital camera, she shared a flat with five FEMEN members for 14 months.
Four to five months after Green started shooting, she discovered that FEMEN had been founded and was controlled by Victor Svyatski, who constantly gave orders to the girls on the phone or by Skype. Near the end of the film, Svyatski admitted he was “the patriarch in an anti-patriarch movement”.
Green says the interview with Svyatski is “the dark side” of the movement. “It’s good for me to come in as an outsider, because I wasn’t aware of this contradiction. So I can show it - were those girls aware of exactly how contradictory what they were doing was, because they grew up in such a patriarchal culture?”
“I am not ashamed. It was my past, and I thank Kitty that she believed in me so much. She saw that we are ready to be independent,” ‘Sasha’ Shevchenko said during a Q&A in London. “I can say ‘thank you’ to Victor as well – he showed me the real face of patriarchy.”
In a recent interview with the German magazine Spiegel, Svyatski, who left Ukraine last month to escape assaults by unknown assailants, attacks alleged to be related to his work in FEMEN, confirmed that he is no longer a member of the group: “FEMEN has already shaken off a small patriarchy, namely me. Now the women will fight on against the big patriarchy.”
In August 2012, Inna Shevchenko moved to Paris and opened a new headquarters there, followed by branches in Sweden, Spain, Denmark and recently Britain, to continue FEMEN’s work as a “global women’s movement”, as FEMEN’s website puts it.
In its birthplace, ordinary Ukrainians are dismissive of FEMEN and its work, and several of its original members followed Inna, leaving the country to escape persecution. “I think in Ukraine they are not as respected as in Europe generally”, says Green.
Awareness of feminism in Ukraine remains very low and changing attitudes there will take time, she says. “‘Change’ is a difficult word. I think what they are doing is raising awareness and sparking debate – that’s the most important thing at the moment.”
Now Green is planning her next project in a Middle East country where women’s rights are oppressed. “I think it is important that these girls’ stories get told and heard”, she said. “I want to keep making films about women’s rights, for ever. I will be in whatever country needs me.”