No doubt, everyone has heard of FEMEN by now, the Ukrainian female activist movement famous for its unconventional and controversial protest tactics. But while we’re all familiar with its gutsy members and their very daring topless public appearances, fighting patriarchy and oppression in all its forms, from Putin to the Pope, we know very little about the private stories and histories of the individuals who created this organisation back in 2008 and its most ardent campaigners.
And because a good story is never straightforward or devoid of ambiguities, Australian filmmaker KITTY GREEN spent fours years trying to get to grips with this awe-inspiring movement and getting to know the people behind it. The documentary UKRAINE IS NOT A BROTHEL is the result and fascinating account of her time with the FEMEN group.
This interview was taken on October 16, 2013 at Filmmakers Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel, London, as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013.
Dana: You spent four years with the members of Femen, filming them and getting to know them…
Kitty: Four years yes more or less. I spent a year then I went back to Australia to find some more money then I came back. It was a long process.
Dana: So tell me a little bit about your experience living with them, you must know this movement inside out.
Kitty: They are very popular in Europe and there was a lot of media coverage of them, whatever they were doing, I knew they were getting a lot of press, CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera and everybody there every day. So I wanted to make a film that was more intimate and show the different sides to the girls, and more about why they are doing it, where they come from and the country they come from, which is very patriarchal, a really terrible place for women to live. They don’t have many rights there and they don’t have a cultural life often.So I lived with them and I really tried to get that intimate experience, and get to know them really well, and get them to trust me, and I did that by living in a two-bedroom apartment with five Femen activists on the outskirts of Kiev. A very ghetto Soviet apartment but we loved it and it was really good, they are like my sisters now, I’m really close to them. People often said “don’t get too close to them because if you want to be a documentary filmmaker you need to be objective”…
Dana: Being objective is probably an unattainable goal but I suppose you do need a bit of distance…
Kitty: Yeah but I think I managed to find a way to have a bit of distance. Because I’m coming from a Western background, I grew up in Australia, I could see the contradictions within the group, they were more clear and apparent to me than they were to them. So I was able to sit back and question them and ask “What’s going on here?
For a taster of what is going on, watch the trailer here:
Dana: Because there’s a lot going on, the movement is quite paradoxical.
Kitty: Yes, it’s a strange story. So it was nice to be part of them but also to be able to question them. And from my questioning I think they learnt a lot about themselves, it forced them to look at themselves, it gave them some introspection. It really changed them, they became a much stronger organisation as a result and I was really amazed to see that change.
Dana: How much footage have you accumulated?
Kitty: About 700 hours.
Dana: That is a lot. What was the editing process like?Did you have any help?
Kitty: No, I kind of did everything myself. Most of it was in Ukrainian and Russian and I didn’t want to translate it all, I couldn’t afford to do that. So I had to get it down before I could even start.
Dana: So you speak the language.
Kitty: Yes, I speak Ukrainian. I kind of learnt, my grandma speaks a bit of Ukrainian and I learnt more in order to make the film. In order to speak about politics, gender, inequality, you need to know more.
Dana: Out of 700 hours of footage, what went in, what did you leave out?
Kitty: They wanted me to make a propaganda film basically and I was more interested in making a film that really showed the contradictions in the movement, something a bit more controversial.
Dana: How early on did you become aware of the contradictions?
Kitty: Pretty early, if you see an image of them, that is contradictory immediately. They protest topless to get attention and that is a contradiction in itself. But the more I observed them, the more contradictory it became, and it upset me a lot, the way they were being treated by certain people, and used by men in that country.
Dana: Could you give me an example of that?
Kitty: The idea of the film is that it reveals that it was actually men that were running this organisation. I was the only one who had access to that guy [Victor Svyatski]. Because I was their videographer shooting the protests […], I saw the way the movement was being run, and the press doesn’t get to see that, they only see the glossy Femen machine whereas I got to see exactly what was going on behind the curtains. They wanted me to shoot something about Femen and explain who they were but I wasn’t prepared to shoot that. So I had to pretend that I was shooting a propaganda film. So a lot of those 700 hours is me shooting things that they wanted me to shoot, ’cause I knew ultimately that that footage was not going to end up in the film, I was only interested in the things that were contradictory and the things that were honest…
Dana: Is this a project that you initiated or they commissioned you to make this film?How did this project come about in the first place?
Kitty: I wanted to make this film, they wanted me to be their videographer, they needed someone to shoot protests and I could do it well and I fit in, I’m a blonde girl, I could travel with them easily.
Dana: Did you have to bare your breasts too?
Kitty: (laughing) No way, no. I would go with them often, like they get flown to a certain country and they would bring me along and I would get there and be the videographer. So it was kind of good because I got to go places for free. But what they needed from me was to give them access to videos to put on their website, to get the videos out there and in exchange I made a film out of it. So if I gave them videos and they gave me their time, I got to sit down with them and do proper interviews and get the footage I needed. So it was a nice exchange.
Dana: Are they happy with the film? Were they okay with you revealing all these contradictions and paradoxes?
Kitty: Happy is not the word I would use to describe it but I think they were relieved to get a story like that off their chest, they know it is the truth, and they knew it wasn’t right and they knew there were a lot of problems with their organisation. And I think they are really happy that finally someone could speak honestly about what was going on, especially someone they trusted and who knew exactly what was going on. But the fallout was kind of hard because the press really latched on to this idea of these sex-crazed men running this organisation. And he talks about sex in the film and what were his motivations but he’s politically-driven, he’s got his own agenda, so yes they got quite a lot of negative press. And since, they were happy at the screening and they were crying and we were relieved to have that story out but since the press latched on to it, it’s become a whole other thing entirely. And I want more people to see the film because I think it really explains it properly, and there are nuances to it, it’s not just this evil man…
Dana: It never is…
Dana: And now, what has changed in the Femen group?
Kitty: Everything! At the end of my film, one of the girls leaves for Paris to start her own independent Femen headquarter, and four others moved there with her. And they opened a branch in the Netherlands, they sort of escaped Ukraine in a lot of ways and they are opening branches all over Europe. He is no longer a part of it, we don’t know where he is exactly, we think he is somewhere in Switzerland, he’s hard to track down, all the press try to contact him to speak with him.
Dana: Is this as a consequence of the documentary?
Kitty: No, it’s actually a consequence of problems in Ukraine with the Secret Service. So they were hunting down Femen over the last year. He left Ukraine in order to escape, he was beaten up really badly by them actually. It was really horrific, the photos were horrible. He left Ukraine for his own reasons and the girls left Ukraine independently and they are living in other countries and they are finally free of control. Which is lovely for me to see. When I arrived, after opening the film in Paris, I was so so proud of the girls.
Dana: This sounds like a better life for them but I’m thinking Ukraine is more in need of a movement like this than either France or Netherlands is.
Kitty: That’s true and I think they will go back, it’s just a matter of finding a safe place for them to base themselves. They are not going to leave Ukraine for good, there are so many things going on there.And that’s their homeland. They will always go back to protest.
Dana: Did you have time to experience life in Ukraine outside the Femen group?What is life really like for women there?
Kitty: It was shocking for me when I first arrived, ’cause I grew up in a fairly progressive area in Melbourne and my mother worked and my friends’ mothers worked, so I never saw this kind of gap or gender inequality, I wasn’t exposed to that at all. So arriving in Ukraine where the men worked and women stayed at home and cooked their breakfast and had to look pretty, it was all very shocking to me. So I was really taken aback by that and provided me with a motivation to make the film because I was really overwhelmed by all that.
Dana: But do you think this is purely as a result of patriarchal pressure or are there economical reasons for this, like lack of jobs for women?
Kitty: I guess it’s both cultural and economical, it’s everything, it’s a very poor country so yes, there aren’t enough jobs. But they would always pick a man over a woman in a country like that because it is a very patriarchal country. So it’s a lot of different factors at play, but right now there aren’t many opportunities for young Ukrainian women who are graduating from university, a few of them in the film were formerly strippers, one of them has a college degree but she couldn’t find work. So she had to become a stripper then she became a Femen activist. Even in the film, all of the girls have different stories of why they became involved with the movement, it’s either to do with how they were brought up, it’s often due to poverty, or an abusive father, or being a stripper. They’ve all experienced patriarchal dominance and wanted to be free of it so they joined Femen.
Dana: What about your future projects, have you got anything lined up?
Kitty: I really want to keep making films about women’s rights, this is where my interest lies, but once you say “I want to make films about women’s rights” people say “oh that’s so boring” so you gotta find a way to make it attractive, make it sexy. So I’m now looking towards the Middle East, thinking of doing something there, right now it’s interesting for women there but it’s still very early days.
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