The director of Ukraine is Not a Brothel on befriending the founders of the radical Feminist protest group, the dangerous ego of their former leader, and getting in touch with the Slavic soul.
Ukraine is Not a Brothel is the feature debut of Australian filmmaker, Kitty Green. The documentary follows FEMEN, the Ukrainian Feminist organisation that has gained notoriety in recent years, particularly for staging topless protests. They term their confrontational protesting style “sextremism”: wielding placards and donning flower crowns, the women of FEMEN paint slogans on their bare chests, chanting profanities against the patriarchy. Structured through a combination of protest footage and a series of interviews, Green’s documentary slowly builds a layered picture that moves beyond the chaos of FEMEN’s public relations, and into the personal lives of its members.
By juxtaposing these two realms, Green interrupts the hype and allows the quiet tension between what is displayed and what is kept hidden to come into focus. The film’s revelation surrounding Viktor, the unseen leader behind FEMEN, is the most obvious component of this relationship, while Green’s own role in the film brings to light the more complex interplay between what we see on screen, and what exists outside the frame. We might catch a snippet of her voice; her name might be mentioned. Early in the film, two of the women are relaxing at home. They both glance up at the camera to wonder aloud, “Why is Kitty filming this?” Subtly, referentially, the women of FEMEN often acknowledge (and seem to appreciate) Green’s presence. Through these small interactions, a sense of closeness and kinship appears between the filmmaker and her subjects, and the film’s most striking developments are relayed to us by virtue of this intimacy. This approach reminds us that trust and respect are integral to the human understanding that Green hopes to cultivate through her work. Rather than criticising FEMEN for its flaws and contradictions, Ukraine is Not a Brothel invites us to learn about how they came to be, through the stories of the people behind the image.
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LAURA SUZUKI: Let’s start at the beginning. Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?
KITTY GREEN: Oh boy, that’s a tough one.
LS: I was hoping that it would be easy!
KG: No, that’s a big question. It’s a weird thing, my Grandmother wanted to go on the pension, and she had a bit too much money. So she gave me five hundred dollars when I was about ten, and I used that to buy a video camera. I was filming with my soft toys for years! I really enjoyed it and I just kept making little films all throughout school, and eventually I went to film school. That just seemed like a natural progression. There’s no real story like “I saw something and I was so inspired.”
LS: Do you remember those first films that you made with your soft toys?
KG: I used to get fishing line and attach it to different Barbie dolls. The funny thing is my film now isn’t that dissimilar to the fishing line Barbie doll film! [Laughs] Basically I just made them wander around, using fishing line to create this puppet show. So I’d do that. I’d spend hours doing that. It’s all silly childish stuff, but it was fun.
LS: You’ve spoken before about your Grandmother being Ukrainian, and how she was your link to that country. How would you describe your relationship to Ukraine? Have there always been strong ties there?
KG: Not really. My Grandmother didn’t speak much English, and I didn’t speak much Ukrainian, but we were still close. My family isn’t that associated with the Ukrainian associations and what not, the Church and stuff in Australia, we’ve always been a bit removed. My mum’s a contemporary artist and photographer and so she didn’t really fit in with the group. So we had ties to it, but not strong ties to it. I guess I was always intrigued by the country and the history of our family, and my mother wasn’t. She was always, “Why would I go back to Ukraine when I can go to Paris or London or New York?” And I’m like, “Well I want to go to Ukraine and see where the family came from!” She was born, technically, in Germany during the war, and she was displaced. She hasn’t been back to Ukraine, so I was the first person to go back and look up the family tree and do all that. My fascination started there.
LS: So when you went over, and you ended up filming the documentary, was that the first time that you’d visited Ukraine?
KG: Yeah, well I kind of went over in two phases. I went over the first time to interview relatives and I went to my Grandmother’s village and interviewed her sisters with my DSLR. And while I was there I saw that the girls were protesting, through their Twitter feed. I read that they were protesting on a fountain in Kiev, which is quite far from where my family is from, actually. They’re from the West. But I travelled to Kiev and I filmed the protest, and it was so beautiful and bizarre and fantastic that I just asked them—I showed the footage to the girls and they liked it. I asked if I could keep shooting more and they said “Yes,” and I stayed a bit longer in Ukraine. I came back to Australia, then went back [to Ukraine] and made the film.
LS: So it was quite a serendipitous collision really, of you going there and hearing about this protest; you hadn’t planned in advance to make a film about FEMEN?
KG: Oh, a little bit, but I’d always wanted to make a film in Ukraine for some reason. My mother has this very Slavic soul. My family has this very pessimistic outlook on life and I kind of blamed Ukraine for that in some way. It’s a very specific outlook, the Slavic soul. It’s a very different take on the world that they have over there and that fascinated me. It just happened that I found this story, which fitted in with things I was making at film school which were all about gender and women and sexuality and whatnot.
LS: How quickly did the gender divide in Ukraine become apparent to you, and in what ways?
KG: Oh, immediately. I grew up in Melbourne in Northcote, a very progressive area. All the women I knew worked; I never knew that gender inequality existed in some ways. I was very oblivious to that. Then arriving in Ukraine I had everyone asking me why I wasn’t married, firstly—I think I was 26 at the time—as if that was such a horrendous crime. They’d want to take me to church to pray I’d find a husband, and make me wear colourful dresses. It was all about introducing me to different men in the village and finding a husband in this very strange way. I’d never—that was never my priority. So it was really weird, and you can just sense it on the street. There’s a lot of sex tourism propaganda, fliers. Even the City Map has ads for prostitutes and brothels on it—you know, the tourist map that you pick up at the airport. That kind of culture’s everywhere, it’s hard to ignore.
LS: Do you think that FEMEN’s protests constitute a reaction to that pessimistic “Slavic soul” that you were describing earlier?
KG: It’s not a reaction really… they have that! [Laughs] I feel very comfortable about them because they’re all like my mother, or something! There’s a brutal honesty. I’ve had it described in one article as, “FEMEN have no filters.” They’re not P.C. at all, they’ll say, “Fuck Putin!” or whatever, “Fuck the Church!” I feel like that’s a product of the Slavic system where it’s very honest, open, and brutal about what you feel. I think that’s interesting.
LS: It’s a more international movement now, but in your film, FEMEN was still primarily based in Ukraine. In what ways do you see FEMEN as a product of the Ukrainian context specifically?
KG: They’d argue differently, but I think as a filmmaker and from what I saw, it’s definitely a product of Ukraine: this whole movement, this idea of getting topless to protest, getting topless to raise awareness and to spark debate. While it’s effective, it sometimes feels a little out of place in Western countries. They’d argue that it works all over the world and it’s the same, but I feel like its roots are tied to Ukraine and especially to this story.
LS: There are lots of interesting contradictions in FEMEN’s philosophy. Obviously the group has changed a lot since the time of filming. How do you think such contradictions manifest in the present day FEMEN?
KG: I don’t like to comment on the present day FEMEN, because I was around at the birth of the movement when it was still figuring out what it was, and also it was under the control of this guy, which is what the film’s about. They’ve since expanded and become a completely different organisation. I’m really proud of the girls of what they’ve done and what they’ve managed to achieve. I was talking to a reporter the other day from The New Yorker, and she’d just been to FEMEN France and was talking about how amazing they are. The organisation that I filmed is very different to what exists now in Paris and what the movement has become. It’s almost two completely different organisations and I haven’t been around the girls in France to know enough about what’s going on there.
LS: Sure. So in light of that, what would you say were the most striking contradictions you noticed while you were filming?
KG: It’s all contradictory, but that’s what makes it a fascinating film. Everything. Getting topless to protest against sex tourism is innately contradictory. Beyond that, there were sex tourists who were funding the organisation by giving them donations, there was a man flying them to different countries to promote a brand of lingerie—I think that’s in the film—but the girls would take that opportunity and use it as a chance to protest. So they kind of spun all these contradictions in favour of their movement in order to get what they wanted, which was just to get awareness of these issues. It was a really fascinating movement; the way it operated was something I hadn’t ever seen before. The biggest one of all was this man, Viktor. The fact that there was this man at the helm, this puppet master who was quite abusive, physically even, but also psychologically. That was the biggest shock for me, seeing him yell at them at night, and then in the morning they’d hold up a banner that said “The New Feminism.” I was thinking, “What is going on here? This is insane!” That was the moment when I had to make a choice about whether I’d go home or keep filming, and try and figure out a way to tell the story without ruining this movement which I thought was a good thing for Ukraine. It was tactful approach in order to get the story but not hurt these girls.
LS: Viktor appeared for me as a really deluded figure, he’s got quite an overblown conception of himself. Do you think that the women of FEMEN also had their own delusions?
KG: He’d got to this position of power where he had complete control, and he’d convinced them that they weren’t capable of doing anything without his help. So in that sense they were kind of deluded, because I could see that they had that power within them, that they were capable of making decisions and coming up with ideas for protests. But he’d put them in this submissive position where they couldn’t really say no to him and they had to go along with what his ideas were. He had this exaggerated sense of ego and wanted them all to revere him and they played along with that, and did. It got to a point where I could slowly sense that they were getting sick of it, and they really wanted to change things, and so I just took advantage of that and started asking questions. I think once they were forced to admit to this on camera, they were forced to follow through with it and move forward and kick him out.
LS: Yeah, and there have been suggestions that you influenced the group to cut ties with Viktor. Do you agree with that?
KG: I think I definitely played a role. I could sense that they were ready to move forward and I think it was being in the right place in the right time and asking the right questions when they needed to be asked. Getting the girls to examine their own movement, a bit of self-introspection. Being forced to re-examine what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and who is this guy? What’s he doing in the movement? Why are they not talking to the press about him? Just thinking all of that through, and thinking it through on camera as well, it helped them move forward in a lot of ways. I think sometimes having a camera there means you can see yourself and watch yourself and see the behaviour, and go, “Oh this isn’t right.” It’s played back for you. Especially in Inna Shevchenko, who is now the leader of FEMEN France, I saw she was ready to move forward. I guess I was just there to capture it.
LS: There’s that point where he says, “I hope in my swinish behaviour, that they see a swine,” which I thought was so funny.
KG: [Laughs] Such a great line.
LS: Do you agree with him at all? Despite everything, it’s hard to deny that he was a driving force behind FEMEN’s success.
KG: Yeah, it’s a messy situation. I don’t think FEMEN would be where it is today, or it might not have even existed without his presence, so in essence he’s done a pretty amazing thing by helping all these girls, pushing them, teaching them about the world and about feminism in general. But in terms of him being abusive and that being okay because it’s a “lesson” for what’s going on in the real world, I think that’s a bit of a silly answer. There’s no excuse for treating young women like that. Again, he’s full of contradictions. He’s a paradox in himself. That was the first interview he’d ever done, he’d never sat in front of a camera. He’d coached these girls for years on how to do interviews, but he’d never sat in front of a camera himself. So I think he was still figuring out what his role was, and that was the best way he could sum it up at the time. I wonder what he’d say now. At the time he was forced to think on his feet. I called him up that day and said, “We’re doing an interview, I’ve been secretly filming you for a year!” so he had no time to prepare. That’s why I think it’s an interesting interview, because it’s unfiltered in that way.
LS: It’s quite a striking start to the film, that image of him in the rabbit mask. May I ask what the mask was all about?
KG: It looks cool, doesn’t it? That was just a happy accident. There was a protest like a week beforehand in support of the animals of the Kiev Zoo. The zoo was run by a corrupt organisation and they were starving the animals, hoping they would all die, so they could sell the zoo land off to make money. All the animals were dying, so the girls stood on the roof in animal masks and did a protest. It [the mask] was just sitting on his couch, and he put it on as we started the interview, and I was like, to Michael, my cinematographer, “Roll! Roll!” It was pretty incredible.
LS: You mentioned briefly that he not only verbally abused the women, but also physically got involved. I imagine that was really frightening.
KG: Yeah. He has a really unpredictable character and a very short temper, and he would just scream and yell. He threw a chair at a couple of the girls at one point. He’s just unpredictable, and that’s the scariest thing. You never know when he’ll snap. We were terrified to interview him. I had Michael with me, but the two of us were so afraid when we called him up. He said, “I’ll meet you at a park,” and we thought, “Oh God, he’s going to come and kill us.” We had no idea what would happen. I wanted to have back up, a friend downstairs just in case he tried to hurt us or got angry. We really didn’t know, and we also didn’t know who he was tied up with, like if he was connected up with somebody in the Government, or somebody in a corrupt higher place. In Ukraine, it’s all very secretive. So definitely, we were all a little terrified by him.
LS: What do you think his motivations were?
KG: A lot of people, if they read the film on a very simple level, or a shallow level, they think he did it to get girls, which isn’t true. He’s just an egomaniac. Basically he was always into politics and was against the government and had a firm political stance that was anti-everything, anarchistic I guess. He was imprisoned for three years after protesting during the Soviet Union when he was quite young, and he read a lot of Marx and Lenin. He came out thinking, “I’m going to be a revolutionary and I’m going to change the world,” and no one would really listen to him. But he found this young group of girls, and those girls, they’re all in the film. They’re the same girls who became FEMEN. He taught them a lot about Feminism, about Socialism, about all of his goals, and it kind of directed them to become this movement. It’s all about ego and his desire to do something grand. There’s a point in the film when he compares himself to Marx. I think that’s what his dream would be, to be such a hero or a revolutionary figure.
LS: You’ve mentioned before that there were other feminist groups active in Ukraine. I’d be interested to hear about the other groups and how they compare to FEMEN.
KG: Yeah, I interviewed another group. And there are just everyday women who are working hard, trying to have a good career, and not subscribing to that kind of cultural pressure to be a ‘woman’ and find a husband. I feel like that’s feminist in itself, but there are groups like the one that I interviewed, which I didn’t include in the film. They’re so angry at FEMEN, because FEMEN gets so much press and these women don’t get any attention, and some of that anger turns into this bitchiness. It was a bizarre set of interviews that I did where they’d be tearing them down in a really negative way, and just not having many results of their own to show me. So it was a strange… its tough for them, I think. If you Google “feminism in Ukraine,” you’re going to get photos of FEMEN, and pages and pages of articles about FEMEN. You’re not going to hear about these other movements. But they are out there and they’re doing things, and I think that’s important. But in terms of the film, it didn’t really fit in. They weren’t really effective to be honest. It wasn’t like I’d met anyone who was very inspiring. They were trying; they were muddling through. The system’s not set up for them to work properly, there’s not enough government funding for anything like that. It’s pretty difficult to be a feminist movement in Ukraine if you’ve got your clothes on.
LS: This is a New Zealand related question—forgive me! There was a FEMEN protest that I’ve read about, against the winner of a New Zealand radio station competition to “Win a Wife.” Did you see that particular protest?
KG: I think there was a reason I wasn’t at that protest and I didn’t film it. I think I’d left for a week for something, but I’m definitely aware of what happened. They did a protest against this guy that won that radio station competition, and it terrified him and he was too afraid to come to Ukraine. [Laughs] It’s probably one of their most effective protests; they got that guy to stay in New Zealand! Yeah, that was something. I forgot about that, I need to talk about that when I get to New Zealand.
LS: I think it’s great that they were so persuasive in that situation. They have received some harsh criticism, though. What would you add to that conversation, to the people who criticise the women in your film?
KG: I had a few feminists who asked to see it [the film] for press reasons, and who would watch the first few interviews and not watch the end. It’s like: you didn’t get the story. That made me very angry. Also, I think they often tear these girls down without even analysing: where are these girls coming from, what are the alternatives for them? I feel like if Yana, who’s a stripper by night and a protester by day, if she’s not protesting she’s just stripping. Basically you’re sending her back into the sex industry if you criticise what she’s doing. People who just attack them outright—it’s just absurd. Really they need to take into consideration where these girls are coming from—this deeply patriarchal society—and maybe give them some kind of constructive feedback. That would be good. I just feel like people are too quick to dismiss them and they need the cultural context to understand what’s going on. If you see the film and you understand that, then you’ll have a very different perception of what this movement is and what they were trying to achieve, and what they have achieved for Ukraine. In fact, in Ukraine, Feminism is no longer a dirty word, and it was for so long. Now young girls know what Feminism is, and they never used to. I think the country has benefitted in a lot of ways from having FEMEN around. The Maidan protests, this recent big spate of protests, it’s not directly linked, but I think seeing FEMEN protest on the streets for four years against Yanokovych, who has since been kicked out—it does help and it does inspire people. It makes people think and go, “Oh, we can change our futures, we can have a say, we can stand up for our rights.” There’s a lot to be said for them [FEMEN], there’s a lot to be said against them, but firstly you’ve got to understand where they come from. And that’s what the film’s trying to explain.
LS: I agree; contexualising FEMEN seems to be a huge focus in the film. It relates to the cultural aspect of these human issues; your film isn’t about FEMEN or Feminism alone, it’s about understanding-
KG: -the world! It’s about understanding humanity, and how it works. The thing about the film is that truth is stranger than fiction. That story is so insane! I couldn’t have written that there’s this man running this topless Feminist movement in Ukraine… that’s absurd! I think the world’s full of these fascinating stories and it’s our job as documentary filmmakers to find them and to get them out there.
LS: It’s clear that you developed a really close bond with the women, and I think that’s one of the strengths of your film, these very intimate portraits are built up. How did your view of the women change as you got to know them better?
KG: That’s an interesting question; normally people ask the opposite! It was pretty easy to slot in with the group because I’m young and blonde and I fit in. I lived with them, there were six of us in a two-bedroom apartment, so we were really close together, and I guess that kind of intimacy and trust grew out of that. But also my willingness to go along to protests, to get arrested with them, to go to Belarus, to do crazy things, it meant that they trusted me with their stories and were willing to open up to me. But to be honest the main reason I did it, and the main reason I wanted to take that angle, is because there was just so much news coverage about these girls—from CNN, BBC, Aljazeera, and the European press—that was coming at one point. I wanted to get a different angle on it. I thought I definitely needed to get that intimate “home-time” stuff. I wanted to interview their families, I wanted to see them and what they do when they’re hanging around the house, and get that view of the organisation. So that was the motivation. As I got to know them better… they became like family.
LS: Was there a pivotal moment where you knew you had become ‘one of the family’?
KG: No. There’s a Russian thing where they’re very rude—well, not Russian, I shouldn’t say Russian. A Ukrainian or Russian or any kind of Slavic culture where they’re pretty rude to strangers, but once you’re in you’re in. As soon as they let you in they’ll treat you like a queen. They’ll buy you so much food and vodka and chocolate. It doesn’t take long to feel you’ve gained people’s trust over there, as long as you’re open and honest. I don’t think there was a moment that really turned the corner or anything. They’d say to me, “You’re not Australian, you’re Ukrainian if your Grandmother’s Ukrainian!” I think that helped.
LS: You’ve said before that Jane Campion gave you some advice, and you’ve thanked her in the film’s credit reel. What wisdom did she share with you?
KG: She is amazing. I finished this film and I cut it by myself on my computer, and it was difficult to get anyone to watch it. But a friend of mine who was on Top of the Lake slipped it to her and told her the story of how I made it, and she was one of the few people who actually sat through it, which was strange because she’s probably one of the most influential people in the film industry! But she sat through it, and called me up and gave me all this feedback about what to do with the edit, how to move forward. Not technical, like “change this, change that,” but how to watch it with an audience, just really simple stuff that I hadn’t thought through. Filling a room with people and watching it is a very different experience than watching it on your laptop. Little things like that, and talking to distributors, and working with producers. It was the guidance that I needed, some sort of support and encouragement. It was just great, having someone care that I’d made this film and try to help, especially someone as amazing as Jane Campion.
LS: And coming from a woman as well, that must have been helpful to have a female perspective.
KG: Yeah, definitely. It was pretty incredible. It’s difficult to get that respect and to get people to listen to you when you’re young and starting out anyway, but being a woman on top of that makes it even more difficult, I think. But her response was always, just keep working, do it, don’t get caught up and get angry about the fact that people aren’t taking you seriously or whatnot, just keep doing what you’re doing. I think that was great advice.
LS: In your experience, have you been viewed differently as a filmmaker because of your gender?
KG: I can tell you in a few years time! I think maybe in the way the film is being perceived, lots of people don’t trust it’s a good film. They know it’s a scandal. They say to me, “Oh, I knew it was scandalous, but I didn’t know it was well-made or a good film.” I think people just assume, because a lot of the press photos are of us in dresses on the red carpet looking very young and fresh faced. I don’t know if people really give the film weight, sometimes. Screen Australia is trying to help me now. They weren’t before but they are now. I think also once you’ve proved yourself, it’s okay, like after we got into Venice [Film Festival]. It gives you a lot more confidence. I’m not afraid to call anyone up now and say, “Hey I need help,” or “I need this, I need the sound designer.” A lot of my friends write and complain a lot about women in the film industry and I think, just go out and make a film, spend less time worrying about it, and I think we’ll be okay.
LS: What’s your personal relationship to Feminism?
KG: To Feminism? It’s weird, I’m not actively feminist and I don’t want to be. I don’t have an agenda with this film necessarily; it’s not a piece of propaganda. It’s portraits of these women and this country. I’m interested in the human side of this movement and that’s what I wanted the film to be; I wanted it to be cinematic and beautiful and to tell stories, human stories. Some people label it as a feminist film, and I think that makes people immediately go, “Oh, I don’t want to see a feminist film, that sounds boring.” But then, it’s inherently feminist, and I am inherently feminist, but I had never had any reason to actively be feminist before I met FEMEN. It’s strange because I’m a feminist and a filmmaker and I don’t think those two things necessarily have to be [related]. I don’t have to say I’m a “feminist filmmaker.”
LS: There’s a lot of weight that comes with that word, Feminism, isn’t there? Especially in relation to art, where if you call yourself a feminist anything, then everything that you create is seen through that framework.
KG: Yeah, exactly. I think you can lose an audience, especially men, who don’t want to go along to see something that’s a “feminist film.” It’s a strange thing. It’s quite cinematic, the film. It’s not like the Pussy Riot film, made up of sound footage, or archival. It’s not toeing any line. It’s analysing these people, in this situation, in this country. It’s these intimate, beautiful portraits of these women. That’s what I wanted it to be.