Ukraine Is Not a Brothel (2013)
Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2014 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival. For more information please visit hotdocs.ca or follow Hot Docs on Twitter.
Protesting is certainly not something new. It is the most obvious exercise of free speech, and has destroyed and built nations. In our internet era of social media, the world has effectively shrunk, and we are able to witness ongoing struggles worldwide. Protest is a time to stand up for those that are believed to not have a voice, lending them power and visibility. However, in this time of commoditization, the pure sensibilities that are so tied to protest can become blurred. Ukraine is Not a Brothel begins as a documentation of one particular protest group, but ends up as an examination of the impurity of an organization.
FEMEN is a collective of Ukrainian women protesting against the patriarchy of their country and society. The feminist organization puts on topless protests designed to fight against the perception of Ukrainian women as objects of lust to be purchased. Their method is eye-catching and has garnered both controversy and fandom. Director Kitty Green delves deep into the organization, meeting with its many members to find out what truly inspires and propels them. In her documenting of the many protests, she begins to reveal the truth of FEMEN as a whole, finding a den of dubious intentions and confusion.
Green shows the very strength of the documentary format. Its ability to be revelatory and to question both its subject’s and our own perception.
Ukraine Is Not a Brothel starts simply. It appears to be little more than a chronicle of the trials and tribulations of an emerging feminist group. However, the film quickly makes the choice to not only be a news story, a recounting of the events, but to use the documentary format to explore. A perfunctory web search of FEMEN would yield a bounty of articles, and we would quickly be able to understand the public perception of the group. Director Kitty Green chooses instead to turn the focus insularly. She is not concerned with the police reaction, or the media’s portrayal. Her focus is on the women of FEMEN, and why they have made these choices. Green shows the very strength of the documentary format. Its ability to be revelatory and to question both its subject’s and our own perception.
The role of men in the FEMEN protests is ubiquitous. It lingers on the outskirts, and even as the many women strip and shout, they are surrounded by male photographers, gobbling them up like so many lecherous giants. Even in the hollering of the protests, you cannot avoid seeing their hungry eyes just out of reach of the protesters. Green utilizes their presence to question the intents and power of the women of FEMEN, raising a more important issue of the group’s actual machinations. The all seeing camera forces the viewer to question FEMEN before Green directly broaches the subject. She clearly possesses a closeness with the members using this as an asset to bring us closer. We are shepherded by the lens and Green is not shy about the revelatory nature of what she captures. Her questions are probing yet delivered in a manner that does not shut down her subjects, resulting in true insight into a structure that is horribly broken.
[Green’s] questions are probing yet delivered in a manner that does not shut down her subjects, resulting in true insight into a structure that is horribly broken.
In many ways, Green’s abilities as a director are the most feminist part of the film. She is not documenting feminism in Ukraine, but rather examining the meeting of protest and business. The members of FEMEN talk of “fans” rather than “supporters” and the organization possesses a structure that maximizes its own profitability. The nudity masquerades as empowerment, when in actuality it is exploitive. The very nature of FEMEN in Green’s film is one of paradox. An organization created by a patriarch to fight patriarchy. The interviews with Victor, the arguable founder of FEMEN, are especially interesting as this self-aware creature plums his own delusions. His interactions with his “followers” mirrors that of domestic violence. An abusive father, or lover, he lords over his “girls”, knowing that they do not have the confidence to leave him. To watch it is unsettling, for the naiveté of the participants reduces them to the very situations they are fighting to destroy.
Director Kitty Green skillfully balances the chaos of the demonstrations and the quiet squalor of the participants’ lives. The women so rarely speak of their own struggle, and talk of women as some larger collective in need of saving. Rather than dropping the truth on us in one deluge, Green gently sprinkles hints of it throughout, until the audience has no choice but to question FEMEN themselves. The film is edited wonderfully, generating an organic forward momentum and allowing the parallels to the surrounding patriarchal society to ring especially true without going into textbook history. Ukraine Is Not a Brothel belies mediocrity by being more than a protest film. It confidently deconstructs its own feminist subject and inspires the audience to question common belief. With its strength of voice, it is far more inspirational than any topless protest contained within.
Ukraine Is Not a Brothel belies mediocrity by being more than a protest film. It confidently deconstructs its own feminist subject and inspires the audience to question common belief. With its strength of voice, it is far more inspirational than any topless protest contained within.