Debutante Aussie helmer Kitty Green strips away spin and half-truths to reveal the complex story of Femen, the Ukrainian feminist group famous for its topless protests, in “Ukraine Is Not a Brothel.” The big reveal in this fascinating documentary, that Femen was effectively run for years by a sinister if charismatic man — Victor Svyatski, interviewed here — has already made headlines around the world, which surely won’t hurt the pic’s commercial prospects. But that shouldn’t distract from the fact that Green also offers a nuanced, thoughtful portrait of courageous if sometimes muddle-headed women fighting on the side of the angels.
Structuring the story around face-to-face interviews with a number of the Femen collective’s key players, particularly longstanding members Inna Shevchenko and Alexandra “Sasha” Shevchenko, helmer Green doesn’t try to disguise how embedded she was among the women while shooting the film. Her voice, speaking fluent Ukrainian, is often heard off camera asking questions, and clearly the Femen-ists grew to trust her deeply over the 14 months she spent living among them.
That intimacy pays off in spades here, as does Green’s good fortune in getting involved with Femen at a key juncture in the group’s history, when stakes became raised enough to prompt several members to leave Ukraine for France and make, pardon the pun, a clean breast of the group’s relationship with Svyatski, perhaps as a result of Green’s coaxing.
Through a mix of interviews, archival material and original footage of the femmes staging bare-breasted protests, Green unfolds the story of how this neo-Situationist group came together originally, aiming in the early days to combat, in particular, the Ukraine’s image as the sex-trafficking and prostitution hub of Europe — hence the pic’s title, one of the slogans they wrote on their naked torsos. Soon Femen’s range of targets expanded to encompass patriarchy in general, the persecution of Russian sisters-in-defiance Pussy Riot, and totalitarian regimes like that of Belarus. It was in this latter country that Green herself was seized by authorities while trying to film a Femen protest in Minsk and subsequently deported; several Femen members, separated from Green at the time, explain how they were arrested, stripped, physically abused, covered in gasoline and forced to flee the country through a freezing cold forest at night.
Based on evidence here, audiences could justifiably accuse the Femen crew of being naive and shaky in their grasp of feminist doctrine, their philosophy riddled with ironies and paradoxes, but no one can deny they’ve got guts, and the bruises to show for it. Pic will spark lively post-screening Q&A sessions at the many festivals it’s no doubt destined to appear at, raising issues as it does about the state of feminism today, particularly in former Eastern-bloc nations and the developing world.
The involvement of the bizarre Svyatski, likened to Rasputin by a slightly on-the-nose soundtrack choice from Boney M, is really secondary to the story, even if it has generated most of the film’s current publicity. Green cleverly builds up suspense about this figure, making him a shadowy offscreen presence up until the final act, which adds tension but also lets the women themselves rightly take centerstage at first. They are presented with a canny blend of sympathy and honesty, as when one of them sees no real contradiction in her being a Femen member by day and a nude dancer in a strip club by night.
Non-source music by Zoe Barry and Jed Palmer adds atmosphere in some of the moodier moments, including a few arty shots of Inna on subway escalators, while cheeky use of Soviet anthems sung by the Red Army Choir adds counterpoint to a montage of their violent scuffles with the police. Pic could benefit from end titles to bring the story up-to-date, especially when it airs on upscale TV stations.