Ukraine Is Not a Brothel by Australian filmmaker Kitty Green is an intimate portrayal of Ukrainian feminist activist group Femen, famous for their topless protesting against the sex trafficking. Green’s film follows these women closely, as well as the man who turns out to be behind their formation.
I’d like to start by talking about the contradictions in the film. The special brand of feminism Femen espouse is rife with contradictions – like that only normatively beautiful girls can protest etc. The film still feels like it’s rooting for them though, was that intentional? Or inevitable?
I hope it does come out as being on their side. I came into it not realising all the, as you say, contradictions. I was worried that exposing them would ruin their movement but I think it comes out OK. I wanted to be the one to tell this story. There are a couple of other films floating around but mainly by men that were much more like propaganda.
The film is very intimate. How did you gain intimacy with the girls?
Yeah, I mean they were my friends. I lived with them. When I went to the Ukraine and I met the girls I didn’t speak much Ukrainian and when I became their videographer and the footage that I was taking I was giving to Reuters and things like that, it was in their best interest that I learn Ukrainian. So I lived with them and became part of that circle. And I’m young and blonde and things like that so it was easy for me to get kind, of you know – all access and that intimacy and I think that pays off a lot.
Yes, definitely. I think it comes across in the film a lot. I guess my next question is about Viktor. How far into the process you realised he was involved?
I saw him around, but he speaks Russian and I speak Ukrainian, but as I learnt more Russian (and Ukrainian swear words are Russian swear words) I could understand him swearing and I was like, “Hang on, what’s this guy doing?” So it was about four or five months in that I really understood his role and once I did understand that he kind of took charge of even my role in some ways and would tell me what to shoot and I would sort of nod along. I wouldn’t do what he was saying but I would pretend I was kind of one of his girls. So it took a few months and that was really disappointing and I had this kind of moment where I was like “Do I keep making this movie? Can I really believe in this organisation? Is there any point?” I wanted to just come home and then I thought, “Won’t they be better off if I expose this?” But I didn’t want to ruin the movement. So I was in this kind of, moral bind that I was stuck in for a little while. A few of my friends at the time were like, “You have to keep going – this story is insane!”
Of course! I think it makes for a much more complicated and impressive film for that reveal.
Yeah, and they’re fighting patriarchy but it’s the same story – they’re not just fighting patriarchy on the street, they’re fighting it within their own organisation and I think there is something really beautiful about the microcosm that is Femen.
Are you still in contact with the women from Femen?
Yeah! I was speaking to a guy yesterday who ordered a t-shirt off their website and it never arrived and he was like “can you get in touch with them?” So I wrote to all these girls saying like, “I just met this lovely boy can you please send him his t-shirt?” which they thought was very funny. But like, it was hard. We premiered at Venice because I wanted to premier at a big festival so that we could get a lot of press so the girls would get a chance to tell their story and they did, but since the press is very one-sided and there were headlines like “Of Course There Is an Angry Man Running Femen” so it was a bit hard for them for a couple of weeks, they lost the trust of a lot of their journalist friends and they struggled a bit but they’ve since climbed out of it. They’ve always understood that it was an important story to tell and that women could learn from it. That was always my position, that’s their position – so yeah, we’re fine. Sometimes they struggle when people say mean things about certain parts of the film. But we are all going to Italy next week, we’re having a theatrical release there – should be cool.
Protesting in general is about getting your message heard by people who may not otherwise take notice, do you feel like this film is a continuation of Femen’s protests?
I like to think of it as cinema and not as some kind of piece of propaganda or activism. It’s cinematic – it’s intimate portraits of women in Ukraine and their lives, basically. It just happens to have women that protest. I don’t like being known as an activist in some ways. You get an audience that are skewed towards that when I think anybody could walk off the street and enjoy this film as just cinema. So it’s a strange sort of line to play. Documentary filmmakers are constantly torn between this – “Am I an activist? What am I?” I think at the end of the day, I’m an observer and I’ve watched these crazy events unfold.
In terms of your background, you went to film school from my understanding. Did you always want to make documentaries?
No, I studied three years of narrative filmmaking at VCA (Victorian College of the Arts) and I guess that informs the look of the film which is quite cinematic. My cinematographer (Michael Latham) studied the same course. So we came at it from a very different way than say, the makers of Pussy Riot which is more like reportage – I know them, I don’t want to say anything bad about them! We come at from a different place. I fell into documentary because as a women it’s a lot easier to work with a tiny crew and I could have a lot more control and I didn’t have to worry what people were thinking of me. I don’t know if that’s a woman thing or just me being insecure! But it was lovely to just work with my own team and it was just me and Michael, the two of us shooting everything and recording our own sound and that was really easy and safe. I had a lot of control and I enjoyed that.
It seems as though this film really couldn’t have been made by a man –
That’s what I said! A lot of men have tried. [The women in Femen] are so gorgeous – I don’t notice how gorgeous they are. But all the men are just so besotted with them, it’s bizarre. It’s disgusting, the French cameraman will be there with the camera in one hand and a cigarette in the other. So many of those men hanging around.
But overall was it an enjoyable experience for you?
It was life changing in a lot of ways. It was really incredible. I look back at the phenomenal year on the festival circuit and it’s been really glamorous – I met Johnny Depp – but at the same time, that year with the protests and the freezing weather and being arrested eight times. That stuff really shaped me as a human being. I feel like my connection with my grandmother [who was from the Ukraine] and my family, I feel really at home in the Ukraine in a way that I don’t here. There is something about the honesty there – the Slavic soul – that I feel very at peace with. It was a really phenomenal time. The hard thing is that I don’t know how to get that back again. It’s tough to find the next project because that was so involved and so personal. It will be interesting.
Do you have any idea what you will do next?
Sort of, I’ve got bits and pieces. I can’t talk about one because it will get me in trouble but I’m definitely still working with women and women’s rights and issues. As soon as you say your film is about “women’s rights” everybody groans, so you have to hide that in some kind of other way. This film is sexy which brings people in but actually it’s about women’s rights. You have to make films about women palatable.
Do you think you were always going to make films about women’s rights, has that always been your interest?
Even my narrative films were about that. I guess I stumbled across these girls because they fit into that style and the themes and subject matter I had been dealing with in my narrative work. My mother is a photographer and I sort of noticed the other day – they had sold their house and we were cleaning and I was looking through her stuff – how her work is all about women and the body and gender and I was like, “Oh, wow. I didn’t realise how much that’s influenced me. I think I’ve always done it.
Thanks for your time.
Ukraine is not a Brothel screens again Friday 13th June at Sydney Film Festival