Friday, 1 August 2014

Ukraine Is Not A Brothel

Ukraine Is Not A Brothel is the name of the 2013 debut movie by Australian Kitty Green. There was a Question and Answer session after the screening I attended with Ms Green herself - just flown in from Kiev. I was lucky enough to see it at the International Film Festival - lucky, because I found there to be an unfortunate lack of context in this interesting documentary. It was edifying to have Kitty Green fill in some of the gaps with her frank observations about the young women she was interviewing. The group they belonged to is named Femen. In the movie, the origins of the group were unclear. The male mastermind behind these young women was such a sinister character, it was good to hear a little more about the befores and afters that are not shown in the movie.
Despite its fragmentary story-telling, it is a film worth seeing. Even without knowing hardly any historical and personal background, the film raises so many provoking questions; about our definitions of feminism, and the ways in which any contemporary protest movement must operate in society’s open marketplace where everything is for sale. The movie also gives us a sketchy outline of the horrible living conditions that so many women suffer within deeply patriarchal Ukraine.

Femen apparently has been around for years and was founded in 2008 by a male chauvinist pig who got himself a group of teenage girls to carry out his political (and no doubt sexual) orders. They created their market niche in the Ukrainian and global media by protesting topless against sex trafficking and prostitution. The visuals show the same old sexist story – the male gaze lapping up beautiful female flesh; lacisivious men purving on young breasts and gorgeous bodies. The movie cleverly catches the male cameramen poking their predatory phallic cameras at the women’s painted bodies. Tantalising rough trade as the girls screaming noisily, get dragged off by the police.

It’s the first feminist movement I have heard of whose leader was a man. Women’s Liberation in its many historical phases has always arisen out of women speaking to themselves and eventually being heard by the rest of society if only for a short time. Now the 21st century has given us this phenomenon of a self-proclaimed ‘father of feminism’ (excuse me while I puke). Needless to say he appears to be a bit of an egotistical tyrant, (surprise, surprise). He has eventually been ousted from the job (although the movie does not show us this particular joy). What it did show was one of the young women talking about how she felt they were his ‘slaves’. Another girl talked of them suffering the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. And we did hear some of his verbal abuse he poured upon his gals. 
Their stunts were similar to Russia’s Pussy Riot – who apparently rose to fame after the Femen protestors.
Pussy Riot in Moscow's Cathedral

However unlike Pussy Riot who were always women-led and utterly their own women, the Ukrainians were always only allowed to be a member of  Femen if they were skinny and pretty. They shamelessly employed their sex appeal in their war against their country’s sexual tourism and its embedded misogyny. One protest was an exception when a very fat woman Alexander, paraded her body in a G-String outside the metro station, whilst the clothed, blonde skinnies around her screamed their warnings of a ‘sex bomb’. While Alexander assured us she is politically engaged and respects Femen, this protest was very uncomfortable to watch from my New Zealand feminist perspective. It highlighted the groups’ dubious politics about women’s bodies, but then I guess all their protests did just that. Sextremism is their name of the game.

The thing is, that their message which is strong and true becomes obscured by the carnal shock value of the medium. Similar to the bra burners of the early 1970s, the taboo-breaking overwhelms the reason for it in the collective memory. Society only remembers how to trivialise and mock the ‘bra burners’ or the topless hussies and forgets how truly terrible were and are the reasons for protest.

The global corporatized media only ever fitfully reports feminist happenings. Women’s  voices are marginalized and cry in the wilderness to other women. Despite the desperation driving the causes of sexual slavery, domestic violence, rape etc etc, the media in general does not see fit to provide a platform for feminism, despite its ever-growing groundswell amongst the world’s population. You may or may not remember sometime back, seeing on your TV sets these topless Ukrainian women. However Femen did make the news – and still does in Europe – for their protest tactics grab the attention of those greedy cameras. Sensation is always news.

When taboos against nakedness and female docility are challenged, the media drools and slathers. The spectacle of those luscious maidens turning into shrieking harpies of ancient myth cannot be resisted by the great Entertainment Circus. The young women in the film repeatedly talked of their ‘brand’ and their ‘product’ – they have got themselves a great marketing device.  After all the media understands – as we all do - women always sell their bodies. It’s usually their only bargaining chip in patriarchies such as the Ukraine – so let’s all get a piece and an eyeful.


After writing this I listened to National Radio’s Kim Hill interview with Kitty Green on July 26th. Here is a little prĂ©cis of that interview, which backgrounds the film and Femen.
Kitty who is Australian has a grandmother who speaks Ukrainian and she has learned the language herself. She lived with the six girls for months in a 2 bedroom apartment, filming them and their protests. Because she established such trust and affection for the women, she has made an intimate portrait of them. She made the film solo and cut it on her laptop by herself. There was no funding, until after she showed Jane Campion the film. This is her 3rd movie.
She calls the young women’s protests bizarre, bold and beautiful. They didn’t only protest about sex tourism and trafficking, but against animals being starved in a zoo, the tyranny of the Ukrainian leadership and religion. Kitty saw the girls as very brave for they suffered much physical and emotional trauma from police brutality, beatings and misogyny.

Kitty herself was abducted by the KGB when shooting the raid into Belarus that the movie showed – she was separated out from the women and put in prison – a terrifying experience!
Kitty believes Femen has raised enormous consciousness about feminism in the Ukraine for before Femen, feminism was an unknown concept there, especially with young women. In the Ukrainian workplace there are not many choices for young women that are not in the sex trade. She believes that Femen’s sextremist tactics have raised much needed discussion and ongoing conversation about how women use their bodies. Why don't you join Femen on Facebook
How Brave is this!

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