feminist

Bare-breasted Feminism & Tough Girl Activism – Filmmaker KITTY GREEN Explains Why UKRAINE IS NOT A BROTHEL

Ukraine is not a Brothel poster

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.

Kitty+Green

Filmmaker Kitty Green

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.

Kitty-Green Femen VeniseDana: 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.

femen inside femen

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.

femen member

Alexandra Shevchenko, one of the founders of FEMEN

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.

Inna Shevchenko, one of FEMEN’s most well-known campaigners

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…

Kitty: Exactly…

Femen pro gay campaignDana:  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.

femen in Paris

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.

Find out more/Donate/Become a member of  FEMEN here.

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How To Shoot a £1m Car Commercial On a Zero Budget

Crewed entirely by award-winning women and with everyone volunteering their time,  this is not your usual car commercial!

The Feminist Car Commercial, three interconnecting short films made to look like genuine car commercials, aims to highlight female film-making talent in the UK and to show advertisers how their marketing communications could be devised for women.

The film will get its premiere at the BFI Southbank in September 2013 before being available online. Below is an interview with the producer, Paul Atherton, taken at BFI on the 8th of August 2013.

Feminist Car Commercial Still

Dana: What sparked the idea for a feminist car commercial?

Paul: There has been a proliferation of adverts that have treated women appallingly in the past 12 month, Audi’s Proms KissBMW’s Greek Billboard AdRenault’s Dancing Girls.  But it was the Broken Heel advert by Audi that really incensed me.  Audi hadn’t used a woman in their commercials for twenty years and when they finally did they leave her lying on the street in the rain with her clothes torn and handbag broken as the car being advertised drives away and leaves her there.  This is something that wouldn’t have been acceptable a few decades ago. Mumsnet’s reaction was universal: don’t buy Audis!

Dana: Was this a commissioned project or your own initiative?

Paul:  This was completely my own initiative.  Writer/Director Amanda Baker had originally come up with an idea to pitch a commercial for women to car companies, but when we did the research we saw a much bigger problem so I thought it would make far more sense to make a campaigning film. As a campaigning film it would have been difficult to find funds, especially quickly, we went from idea to finished film in under three months, far quicker than most funders take to make a decision. And who would commission a film that challenges the very industry that fuels it?

Dana: How does one pull off a “sting” of these proportions: shooting three sophisticated car commercials on a zero-budget, something that advertising companies spend ludicrous sums of money on?

Paul: Film is always about collaboration and this was no different.  Give people a great idea, surround them with talent and give them a message they can get behind and believe in, then you’ll find anything is possible. There are some amazingly generous people in our industry: Barry Basset at VMI, who supplied us over £1/2 Million worth of camera equipment, has been supportive of me since I entered the industry; Barnaby Laws at Panalux had worked with our amazing DP Gabi Norland before and wanted to support her, as well as the campaign; Paul Merchant at make-up supplier Charles Fox has been our award winning make-up artist and Sara Menitra‘s supplier for years; and Daniel Pagan at post house Lipsync has been a fantastic support to me since our first introduction. The key, as always, is relationships. It’s the people you’ve helped and supported that come back and help and support you.

Dana: How many people got involved in this project?

Paul: We managed to persuade just under 100 people to volunteer their time and expertise. As well as a number of industry sponsors who supplied all our kit and services.The thing that made this so special is that we created an A-list of award winners and established experience to approach and we got nearly everyone on it.But as always, we were keen to support new talent too.  So my entire production crew was made up from recent graduates and in addition we offered 11 runners their first job experience.

Fem car Com duplicateDana: I understand you also had some very prominent public figures supporting the project and that with a few exceptions it was an all female cast & crew.

Paul: The project first came to life for me when Carly Simon agreed to let us have her Oscar-Winning iconic eighties feminist anthem from the film Working Girl entitled Let The River Run free of charge. This was the equivalent of giving us between £50,000 to £100,000. Then BAFTA-nominated Natalie Holt agreed to do the original score. Sara Menitra, NY IMATS Makeup Winner 2012, Sara Chatterton, Celebrity Hairdresser,  Editor Prano Bailey-Bond & Director of Photography Gabi Norland who were both previous Underwire winners came next. The rest of our crew had worked on features from Harry Potter to the Iron Lady. Steve Moore, former Chief Executive of The Big Society Network, had just launched Britain’s Personal Best and we were one of the first projects to pledge.

The idea of an all female cast & crew came from the notion that if we were going to make something for women it should have that perspective in every department.  There had always been an absence of women in a variety of departments and the filmindustry as a whole.  Organisations such as Birds Eye View, Women in Film & Television have made great inroads to redressing that.  But I saw this as a way for us to highlight the British female film-making talent available, whilst making a point about one of the reasons it’s so hard to break in, namely how the media perceive women.

The men we had on the production crew, Frank Hellebrand – Grip, Greg Macfarlane King – Gaffer, Daniel Deighton – 2nd AC and Matthew Cresswell – DIT, very generously came on board at the last minute to fill in for roles that we couldn’t find replacement women for.  A classic example was our grip, Grace Donaldson, who had to drop out for a paid job. And as she is, if I’m not wrong, the only female grip in the world, we had no other way of replacing her.  But this clearly made our point that there are far too few women in the industry.

Dana: How long did the project take from start to finish?

Paul: The idea was sparked in May of this year (2013), I had scripts by the end of June and we’ll have it all finished by the end of August for the screening in the BFI Southbank on 3rd September 2013.

Dana: What were the challenges?

Paul: The biggest challenge was persuading our production crew to work for free for four days.  If this had been a student project, or people looking for experience it would have been simple.  But we were asking established talent, who had no need to add to their showreels (the main reason most people work for free). But once they understood the values of the project and the talent attached etc. they all generously bought in. Our props-maker Jo Shears who created the most jaw-dropping special effect of fingernails blowing away in the wind proved it doesn’t matter what the challenge is, as long as you’ve picked the right talent it can be overcome.And we had the right talent in every department.

Dana: Have you experienced any of those moments when you wished you hadn’t bothered?

Paul: Lots.  It’s undoubtedly been the hardest production I’ve ever worked on. And the catalogue of let-downs got to biblical proportions. For example, the idea was originally based around comparing ourselves to the recent Jaguar RSA “Desire” Film.  I was informed that we had access to two new F-Type Jaguars and a celebrity (which sadly never materialised), three months of negotiations with Jaguar fell at the last hurdle (three days before the shoot), on the basis they didn’t want to be seen leading a campaign for “Equal Pay” for women.  Our locations manager who was eight months pregnant when she came to us left to have her baby and we were suddenly left without locations two weeks before the shoot. We had three major crew dropouts on the day before the shoot and even the location that we thought had been secured turned out not to have been with just hours to spare. But with a great team, amazing vision and people pulling in every favour they had, we got it in the can. Our “thank you” list is likely to be the longest in cinematic history! And we agreed we’d only complete the third mock commercial in the trilogy if we get our named talent, which is what I’m on a quest to do now.

Dana: To care deeply about something – does that provide all the motivation and drive you need to succeed?

Paul: No. Caring deeply about something is the starting point.  And you’ll always remind yourself that this is what it’s all about.  It’s why you do what you do. All my previous productions are around things that are important to me. Domestic violence, racism, prison reform etc.  I would hate to make something that didn’t have an underlying cause. But the drive, that comes from other people for me. People you can turn to when things get hard, the people who can see the silver-lining in the cloud when all you can see is the cloud. The people who will rally to your defence and stand by you no matter what. I’m very fortunate to have a lot of friends in and outside the industry that fill those roles and without them none of this would be possible.

Dana: If you had a budget for this project, what would you spend it on?

Paul: If we had a budget for this, it would in essence have just been a commercial.  We wouldn’t be making an important point and we wouldn’t have got the commitment required to make it.

Dana: Where is feminism at these days? Do you think we are witnessing a backlash? The fact that people don’t seem to be as sensitive about the issue as in the past (only one woman complained about the Renault ad if I’m not wrong?) can be interpreted as a good thing, in the sense that women got what they wanted, there is no need for feminism anymore, OR as a very bad thing, that women simply gave up the fight or don’t care anymore. What are your insights on this subject?

Paul: I think the term feminism has many poor connotations.  Usually associated with women who seemingly hate men.  I see feminism as being pro-women and not anti-men. I don’t think there is a backlash against feminism. I just think audiences, marketeers and advertsiser have just got lazy and apathetic.  We live in a society that is all concerned about spending.  People always talk about doing jobs to pay the bills.  That thinking leads to fear and to inertia. So when BMW put a poster up in Greece, containing a sultry 14-year old looking girl attached to the tagline “You know you’re not the first” to advertise their second-hand car dealerships, you know that the hundreds of decision-makers involved in that process either didn’t care or didn’t have the courage to say “that’s nuts.. noooo!”

Dana: What are you hoping to achieve with these films?

Paul: The whole point of the project is two-fold.  First to highlight what amazing female film talent there is in the UK and that we need far more. And secondly to remind marketeers that women are customers, a large customer base in fact, and not objects.  This is our version of what car advertisements should look like: creative, funny, quirky and making important points. The films are of course just the catalyst for the debate and fortuitously we have Olivia Read at DDA PR to ensure our message gets out there far and wide. We all realise without the press there can be no change in public perception and we appreciate all the support we can get in that regard , so thank you.

Dana: You’re welcome!;)…Do you intend to develop the idea into a larger project?

Paul: We have a feature script written by Rhianna Pratchett entitled Vigilia, which looks at the rise of a female movement in the UK kickstarted by a rape. So the ideas behind this project tap directly into that.  That of course will require funding, approximately £2 million, and we have some financiers lined up who I’m sure will appreciate the production values contained in this short.

Dana: I understand you suffer from chronic fatigue,  how did you manage to keep working?

Paul: Chronic fatigue is a disabling condition that often leads sufferers to be bed- or wheelchair-ridden for years.  I was diagnosed in 1992 and I was wheelchair-bound for nearly a year in 2010.  But since then, I’ve managed to survive just through what are known as “crashes”. The worst has lasted a couple of months. You’re unable to move and sometimes even to talk. It used to be terrifying but I’m used to it now. It’s ironic because all the doctors tell you to avoid stress and lead a very dull life.  But I’d rather shine for a few months and then crash for months to produce something.  Not making something would mean I’m not alive and it would be impossible to keep struggling on without that aspect of my life.

Dana:  Is it true that you are homeless?

Paul: Yes. It’s a sad reflection of Britain’s current state, that our lives are no longer our own.  In 2009 an error on my credit file which had nothing to do with me resulted in me not being able to renew my tenancy. The resultant stress caused a CFS crash and I ended up in hospital for three months and discharged to a homeless hostel in Brixton.  I was claiming benefits but there were many screw-ups and I was evicted to the streets from there in my wheelchair.  As you can imagine, friends were incredibly supportive and offered accommodation and care but it’s not their job.  I’d paid my taxes and should have had the systems there to protect me.  I therefore decided to live in my car on the Southbank, which I did for two years until the police confiscated it by mistake at the beginning of this year 2013, another bureaucratic cock-up involving a wrongly apportioned conviction at the DVLA.  I now live in a hostel in Vauxhall but as of Monday they’re trying to kick me out – on the grounds, and you’ll love this, that I have nowhere to live!