The story told by Kitty Green’s documentary Ukraine is Not a Brothel is a fascinating one. But the appeal of this film is not the mystery it unravels as it examines the inner workings of Ukrainian feminist movement FEMEN, but the thoughtful and thought-provoking perspective provided by its Australian director. This is a sterling example of the potential of the documentary, beholden to the constraints of the medium – talking heads, investigative journalism, etcetera – and yet elevating the form with a deep understanding of both cinema and the complex politics that the film investigates.
You may have heard of FEMEN before. Founded in 2008 in Ukraine, this organisation – which consists almost entirely of young, pretty blonde women – mounts controversial protests towards patriarchy and its symptoms. The protests are provocative, attracting substantial media attention thanks less to the content of the message and more so its presentation – invariably topless women, often painted with feminist slogans and wielding placards (with messages like “Ukraine is Not a Brothel.”)
Green’s profile/investigation of the organisation begins at the ground level, interviewing an assortment of FEMEN members from prominent young activist Inna Shevchenko to credited founder Anna Hutsol. Early conversations are not especially revealing – one woman’s explanation of the group’s goals is later seen repeated verbatim to a reporter at a protest – but the film digs deeper. Cracks of hypocrisy or, perhaps more generously, ideological tensions become apparent: a FEMEN member discusses the conflict between the organisation’s stated ideology and her night work as a stripper. Another laments that girls “who aren’t pretty” aren’t welcome in the group. We learn that FEMEN’s visit to Turkey is sponsored by a lingerie company, whose logos are displayed prominently at a press conference.
A reductive reading of Ukraine is Not a Brothel would suggest that this is merely an investigation into the disingenuousness of an organisation who proclaims to be invested in feminist ideals but operates as a for-profit organisation at the whim of the patriarchy. But fundamentally the film is about the difficulty of an anti-establishment organisation making its message heard within the establishment, and how resisting the system often requires working within the system. What is the difference, after all, between the hordes of male police officers who drag FEMEN protestors away and the throng of male journalists who enthusiastically photograph the protestor’s naked bodies?
The tight focus on FEMEN itself invites us, by omission, to consider the role of the mainstream media – and, more broadly, society at large – in the way social defiance is conducted. Even the Western media – leagues more liberal than regressive Ukrainian society – embraces radical messages that can be neatly packaged to its consumer audiences. The comparatively easy target of a scientist’s sexist shirt is rightfully rejected, but the reasoned feminist assertions of a young actress are dismissed as ‘craziness.’
The line between rebellion and prostitution blurs, FEMEN’s rejection of the commercialisation of female sexuality going hand-in-hand with topless promotional voters and a stream of incoming donations from mainly male supporters. In order for FEMEN’s message to be heard within the system, it is irrevocably destabilised – and the parallels between this and the modern commodification of feminism are impossible to ignore. (Especially when you consider the film itself – the prominent placement of topless women in its promotion and production are testament to its existence in a fundamentally patriarchal media.)
Ukraine is Not a Brothel has a wallop of a twist waiting in its second half, a revelation that deepens the messiness of the organisation’s political message. It’s testament to Green’s direction that this twist is neither unexpected nor presented as such. Long before the legitimacy of FEMEN’s origins is muddied, Green emphasises the dominance of men with careful cinematic choices. It’s not just the way she subtly but significantly frames the aforementioned group of (all male) photographers, but the way her camera lingers on the breasts of her interview subjects. The male gaze is adopted as a kind of subversion, but one that is – intentionally, I suspect – not entirely successful.
The documentary both presents and invites a considered reflection on how to resist a system from within; however, its political aspects – which make me want to dig up some reading on the sociology of protests – are weakened by a substantial personal dimension. While Green is occasionally mentioned in conversation, she deliberately shies away from including herself in the story, instead presenting Inna as the protagonist. Despite the brief excursions into home video footage we never get a real sense of these protestors as people; we’re invited to reflect upon their principles but not their personalities. This is an understandable omission, but it lends the film a somewhat detached perspective that blunts its impact.
Even if we don’t really come to know Inna or her fellow FEMEN members as well as I would like, Ukraine is Not a Brothel is sympathetic to a fault. The presence of a woman behind the camera is important here, I think, providing a female perspective to counteract the patriarchal influence that is otherwise ubiquitous in the film. It would have been easy for a documentary like this to dismiss these women as suckers, dupes dragged in by the false promise of doing something meaningful. Instead, Green ensures that we understand that despite the strictures and compromises inherent in our unequal society, strong-willed individuals can make a difference.