Kitty Green on KGB kidnappings and Ukrainian violence

The filmmaker behind Femen documentary Ukraine Is Not a Brothel speaks

ukraine is not a brothel

To celebrate our Girls Rule issue, Dazed have been running a series of takeovers. We've played host to Angel HazeStacy Martin and Petra Collins. Today we're rounding off Girls Rule with a day of content curated by female protest group Femen. Inna Shevchenko selects the activist group's literary inspirations, we chart the dA-Zed of female protest and Femen react to the violence in Kiev with their own manifesto for change. Keep checking our Femen Day page for more throughout the day.

Ukraine Is Not A Brothel was one of the best films on the documentary circuit last year: the London Film Festival award nominee nimbly sliced through all the hype and media babble about Femen, Ukraine's most famous protest organisation. Australian-Ukranian filmmaker Kitty Green following the women for 14 months as they wrestle with the internal politics of the group, battle with heavy-handed authorities and finally, fall apart – or so it seemed.

The biggest story to emerge from the release of the film was the revelation that a man called Victor Svyatski was masterminding the whole operation from behind the scenes, Wizard of Oz-style. In response, Femen members booted Svyatski out of the group, and under increasing political persecution in Ukraine, many fled to France or Switzerland to set up new Femen outposts. But the film is more than Svyatski's outing: it's a subtle, insightful look into the world of Ukranian activism and Femen.

Their protests, sometimes rightly so, have been criticised as being scattershot (they've taken aim at everything from Islam to global capitalism) but Ukraine Is Not a Brothel explains how a group of disenfranchised women could ultimately find strength by thrusting themselves into the world's spotlight. It presents a Ukraine so grey and devoid of hope for young women that you start to understand the reasons behind Femen's rage and angst.

And for a group that's been accused of everything from being "too pretty" and "obsessed with nudity", it reminds you that activists – even those who toy with representations of sexuality and nudity – are people too. There's a terrifying scene where Femen recount their kidnapping by KGB agents, who blindfolded them, drove them out to the middle of the forest and pressed a gun to their head. In the midst of the current violence in Ukraine, it reminds you that activists and protesters don't play around for sport: Femen don't just get naked because they can – they do it out of the belief that this is what it takes to create change.  

Here, Kitty Green tells Dazed about the whole Svyatski saga, and explains why, despite appearances, the group is stronger than ever. 

Dazed Digital: How did you first come across Femen?

Kitty Green: My gran was Ukranian so we went on a holiday there.  I saw a newspaper article in a crappy tabloid with a photo of Sasha, one of the Femen activists, holding a sign topless saying ‘Ukraine is not a brothel’. I thought it was beautiful image. I went along to Kiev where they were based to shoot a protest and they liked what I’d shot…  So I just kept shooting for another 14 months. 

DD: When did you realise there was potential to make an entire documentary?

Kitty Green: I hadn’t seen a movement like that before, and there’s not many interesting films about young Eastern European women. As I learnt more about the organization and how it was run, I realized how powerful a film about them could be.

DD: A lot of people give Femen flak for being topless, but they never do it in a sexy way. They don’t look pliable or submissive; in pictures they either look enraged or stoic.  

Kitty Green: Yeah, they’re furious. There’s no photos of FEMEN looking cute and naked. They have a lot of rules for a protest and one of them is you have to look strong and angry. It isn’t sexy. When you see them on the street, they’re brutal. It’s terrifying for a lot of people.

DD: The film also describes how they were attacked by Ukranian police. 

Kitty Green: They cracked down during the 2012 Euro Cup. Our phones and our Facebook accounts were hacked. Very Soviet era. We’d rock up at a protest with five topless girls, me, and there’d be 60 or 70 policemen. It’s like, you need this many men to control five young, skinny blonde girls? It’s absurd. The Ukranian government doesn’t want anyone speaking out against them or embarrassing them in any way, and that’s what Femen does best. 

DD: I read somewhere that all of you were deported from Belarus while you were there for a protest?

Kitty Green: Belarus is called one of Europe’s last dictatorships. We were abducted and kept in confinement for about 12 hours, by people I think were KGB agents. I was taken by these men in a blacked-out van, they took my phone, camera, everything and then threw me on a train and escorted me to Vilnius, Lithuania. A guy there said 'goodbye' in Russian, and gave me a big wink.

Still from UK
Still from Ukraine Is Not A Brothel

DD: Did the girls ever feel conflicted or question their involvement in Femen, given that kind of pressure?

Kitty Green: A lot of them don’t have opportunities in Ukraine. One of them was a stripper, another was a topless model, another worked in a mobile phone shop. Their options are limited and they’re angry they don’t have the options other women in Europe have, sick of struggling in Ukraine, a country that’s male-dominated and patriarchal. They’re willing to put their lives on the line for something they believe in.

DD: The big story to emerge from the doc, of course, is that a man called Victor Svyatski was actually masterminding the whole enterprise.

Kitty Green: It took a few months. He was always in the background, telling them off in Russian. As I learnt more Russian I could understand exactly how abusive and controlling he was being, which concerned me. I almost went home, but I decided it would be better to stay. I was really saddened by it. I’d see him screaming at them and the next day they’d be holding up posters saying 'this is the new feminism'. 

DD: How did you convince him to speak on camera ?

Kitty Green: That was tricky. I pretended I finished the film and left the country, then I called him up secretly and said, 'I’m in Kiev and I’ve filmed you this whole year. Do you want to give me some commentary or will I just put you in without your word?' I’d heard from the girls he sometimes gets frustrated he’s not in the spotlight.

DD: What’s happened since he was exposed?

Kitty Green: After I interviewed Victor, I went back to the girls and they were forced to look at the problems with the organisation. A year after I finished editing, I came to Paris and met Inna, who’d moved there to start Femen France without Victor. I think just probing these questions in the first place has changed the organisation. Victor’s in hiding somewhere. I haven’t spoken to him since the film and I don’t really ever want to. The girls are trying to prove they’re still strong and still fighting.

DD: One criticism of Femen is that their feminism is quite naïve and reactionary – they’re against the veil, against Islam, pretty much against everything. How do you think they stand, as a feminist organisation? 

Kitty Green: Their methods are a little subversive, perhaps, but they’re sparking debate and getting young women to talk about feminism in Ukraine, where it’s quite a dirty word. They made it sexy, they got it on the news, so I think there is something to be said for raising awareness and screaming about different issues going on in their country and all over Europe. 

DD: Now that some of them are based in Paris, what do you think the future holds for them?

Kitty Green: Four or five of them are in Paris, they’ve started training camps and  in Spain they had a great protest against the abortion law. They’re doing things all over the world. They’re very strong, especially Sasha and Inna – I believe they’re capable of doing anything. 

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