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Interview: Kitty Green chats about Ukraine is not a Brothel

We spoke with director Kitty Green about her film, Ukraine is Not a Brothel, currently screening as part of Hot Docs 2014. Green’s film was the first to exp-lore the inner workings of the controversial protest group, Femen and in doing so reveal it’s founder, a man named Victor. The film questions many of Femen’s methods but also allows the women of Femen to take an honest look at the group and how they can best move forward.

As a filmmaker did you feel that Femen were being misrepresented by the media? That they weren’t getting a chance to accurately tell their stories?

I don’t think they wanted to tell the story that I told. They wanted that to be kept a secret. I think they were being represented in the media the way they wanted to be represented in the media them I came along and said but that’s not the truth, how about we start telling the truth. So in some ways my role was to encourage them to be a little bit more authentic in the press. I guess they were ready to move forward and I could sense that they were ready to kind of make a change in the organisation.

So do you feel like they were waiting for someone that they could open up to and be like, “we’re not happy about this, this and this” but maybe they just didn’t have the right person to talk to?

Not necessarily, I think they were just kind of used to living under this guy’s (Victor Svyatski) rule.

Just being told what to do and not questioning?

Ya and I think I got there and it was a pivotal kind of time when they were travelling around Europe and meeting other feminists and slowly discovering what feminism was and what it meant to them and what their organisation was really. Me asking the questions as well forced them to examine their organisation and examine the contradictions and say, “hang on is this the way forward?”

I think it was a combination of things but I was definitely there at a moment when things were changing and I probably poked and prodded. I think when you promise to do something on camera you kind of have to follow through. So it was good that we had the cameras there at that point. I could ask them what their goals were and they could try and make that happen.

Which they did, they have made that happen.

Was there ever a time when you and your crew were at risk filming the Femen protests?

Yeah, I mean, I was arrested about 8 times. So I got used to that. It’s scary in the beginning you kind of start to learn that they’re just really doing it to scare you. That’s their main objective. I’m technically not doing anything illegal so by arresting me it’s really more a scare tactic than anything else.

Were they rough with you guys, did they use brutality?

Um. Yeah, they grabbed me. They’re rough with the girls because the girls kind of play that up. But ya they were a bit rough with me I have to be honest. I didn’t like the way that they treated me but I mean you just put up with it. And I guess you see what the girls go through and comparatively it’s…

Yeah, they seemed pretty beaten up and bruised.

Yeah, exactly.

So I’m also wondering about Victor. There are sort of two halves to the documentary. In the second half you get to see the inner workings of Femen and you wonder who is this guy? From my point of view he just reminded me of a lot of abusive men that I’ve encountered. What are your thoughts on him as a man and as the founder and (former) Leader of Femen?

As a human being? He’s very funny and very clever. Really intelligent, fiercely intelligent. It was always fascinating for me to be around him but I hated the way he treated the women and the way he spoke to the women and the way he just sort of dominated any kind of conversation. That kind of abusive patriarchal role.

He’s like an abusive boyfriend.

He is like that and I think the girls compare him to that in the film. At the end of the day he’s a narcissist and he’s stuck in his head and can’t see past his own ideas. So for the greater good of Femen they needed to get rid of him.

So he’s no longer officially the leader of Femen? Or are their different factions?

No. Well there’s Femen little branches all over the world but there’s kind of an official Femen international headquarters in Paris and Inna Shevchenko has taken the reins of that and is now running that out of Paris. So they think that he doesn’t even have a role anymore in Femen.

So he doesn’t even have like an, “We’re the Original Femen” kind of group?

No, he’s left Ukraine and he’s somewhere in Switzerland I don’t know exactly where but he’s out of the loop and he should probably stay out.

Is he running from the law, is that why he left Ukraine?

A little bit. He was beaten up pretty badly we don’t know who it was. He claims it was the secret service there. I don’t know who it was. He sort of was escaping that a little bit and Ukraine was getting pretty intense. The government was cracking down on protestors so it got impossible for them to protest.  So the girls had to flee to do their jobs so they left and so did he but later on.

So he’s off the radar right now?

Yup.

Your film was the first to reveal his identity was it a struggle for you to get him to agree to that or did he want to come out and talk about it?

I pretended that I was sort of just making a propaganda film about them and on my last day of shooting I said goodbye and then left. Then I came back for a day and called him up and said I want an interview, I’ve been secretly filming you this whole time. Kind of threatened him. It was a silly threat, an empty threat in some ways. I’ve been secretly filming you either give me commentary or don’t.

He was forced to think it through. He was screaming at me no you’re going to ruin the movement and I was a bit afraid of him to be honest. You could sense that he wanted the spotlight. So I was like I’m the only one that knows the extent of your power and just how clever you are and really I can show that to the world. You’ve been behind the curtain for so long it’s about time you got a bit of your share of the spotlight.

So I think he was convinced by that but also he understands that all publicity is good publicity when it comes to Femen. They thrive on scandal. Scandal doesn’t hurt them in a way it might for a few days but in the end more people know what the movement is, more people are talking about women’s rights in Ukraine. That’s the aim; to raise awareness and get people talking and they’re doing that for sure.

So did victor come up with their protest methods, specifically going topless?

I’ve heard rumours that it was him and rumours that the girls like to say that it was them.

How did he justify that as being a tool of protest rather than mere exploitation?

He definitely has these grand ideas of how this idea of topless feminism can shake up the world and change things. It’s all planned out it’s not just him doing it for sex because he likes to see topless women. It’s definitely a political agenda, he’s a Marxist and a Leninist, he wants to be a revolutionary he doesn’t want to be a pimp. His goal is to change the world.

So did you feel that he was sincere in that goal and not just using these women for money?

I feel like he was an activist as a young guy. He was put into prison during the Soviet Union for a few years. He came out with all these ideas and he just didn’t have anyone to listen to him. The only people that would listen to him – because he was a young guy – were these 16 year-old girls.

Ah, so they looked up to him.

Ya and they trusted him ad he thought them stuff about feminism and about the world. And they believe in what he had to say and they followed his crazy ideas and that’s how Femen was born. You’ve got to give him some credit for that.

If a conventionally unattractive girl wanted to join and felt strongly about the cause would she be turned away, is there like a screening process?

I don’t think there was like a casting session but it was that the prettier girls got the papers. They understood that the prettier the girls the more photographers they get. That was kind of Victor’s rudimentary understanding of sexuality and what the press does.

They were learning as they were going. I guess the girls who weren’t that attractive felt uncomfortable, were probably made to feel uncomfortable by people like him I’m not sure. But definitely it ended up being an organization of Barbie dolls by the end.

Since he’s left it’s really changed, so every one of all different shapes and sizes is participating.

What opportunities exist for girls growing up in Ukraine?

Society is so deeply patriarchal there. Their mothers encourage them to find husbands, they‘re kind of groomed to find husbands and to go to university because that is where the smart boys will be, because they’ll find a husband there not necessarily because they’ll get a career. That sort of seems to be the end goal with those young girls. It’s sort of a combination of that and that society doesn’t take them that seriously.

I went back recently and saw them and one of the girls who is a friend of friend was proudly telling me how she’s a topless waitress at a casino and how cool that is. And I was like, really? You’re around Femen everyday but you still think that’s a cool job? It’s so surreal.

Are there other feminist groups or organizations in Ukraine now as a result of Femen?

Femen, four years ago, when Yanukovich came into power they were already protesting against him. Then all of a sudden the Ukrainian people have kind of risen up and decided to do it for themselves. Even though people don’t take them seriously often, especially Ukrainians, there is something about seeing young women on the street and if they’re not afraid to do it then why can’t we do it?

How do you feel about the criticism hurled at Femen by other feminist groups and publications? For example, one writer (Charlotte Raven of feministtimes.com) referred to them as “Beauty Fascist Fauminists”.

I’m not 100% on board with Femen’s methods but at the same time I hate people that tear them down. It seems to me silly to just criticize them openly and almost like tell them that they’re worthless. I think people should be encouraging them.

I get a lot of feminists at Q&As who criticize them openly and often can be quite scathing and mean. If you’re going to criticize them at least let’s talk about how these girls don’t really have much choice. If they go back to Ukraine they probably will end up being strippers or what not. By just tearing them down you’re not helping the situation at all. Let’s give them options, let’s open up the conversation about how we can make this a better feminist organization.

I think the film is doing that by forcing them to look at their own organization and examine the contradictions in it.