When she vanished in Belarus, Australian filmmaker Kitty Green got a dose of unplanned publicity for her film. She'd been living among members of Femen, the Ukrainian feminist protest collective that had drawn worldwide notoriety for its topless street theatrics.
In December 2011, members of Femen ventured to Minsk, the capital of neighboring Belarus, to stage a demonstration against the so-called "Europe's last dictatorship" of Lukashenko. In an incident that received worldwide attention, Belarusian security officials detained Green, confiscated her camera and deleted her footage. Meanwhile, the Femen demonstrators were taken to the border, stripped naked, doused with gasoline and then ordered to run for the frontier.
This terrifying episode, recounted in Ukraine is Not a Brothel, is one of Femen's more extreme exploits. But Green's film is more concerned with the motivations of the women, and the chafing of key members at the shadowy figure of "Victor," the man who keeps the women under his tight control, raising their funds and devising their dangerous protests.
Femen is viewed with some suspicion not just for Victor's involvement, but because in its early years, its sexualized activists all fit stereotypical expectations of beauty.
Green won't be at the festival, but we spoke with her from her residence in Sydney, Australia. Her film has already played at South By Southwest in Austin and True/False in Columbia, Mo., and she's working on securing American distribution.
"I still haven't figured that out," the 27-year-old filmmaker says. "You have to put it in the right hands to have it marketed appropriately. It's easy to sell it to the wrong people by throwing boobs on the cover."
Editor's note: Ticketholders to this film might prefer to see it before reading this interview.
INDY Week: Tell us about your experience in Belarus.
Kitty green: I filmed the protest but then the KGB erased it from my card. I speak Ukrainian and a bit of Russian. The police were speaking to me in Russian. I pretended that I didn't know what they were saying, and gesticulated a lot. I pretended that I was just a tourist. I had a transit visa and I said that I was just passing by, saw these girls in the square and took some photos. I think they knew exactly what I was involved with all the time. My Australian passport got me out of it, I think. They often get scared when they see the kangaroo on my passport.
Have you thought about parallels to Pussy Riot in Russia—young women putting themselves at great risk in public protests?
Femen has been protesting for longer than Pussy Riot. Pussy Riot shot to fame really quickly though, because they were in jail and Putin is an easy enemy. Although with Femen, not so many people knew about [oustedUkrainian President Viktor Yanukovych] and less knew about the Ukraine. It was harder for them to get as much traction from the media as Pussy Riot.
Pussy Riot did that one protest and got famous, but Femen is constantly going, doing things once every three days. What made Femen more interesting to me was this whole idea of gender and patriarchy and the role this man [Victor] had in their community. For me as a filmmaker, Femen is more interesting subject matter because of how contradictory it is.
I'd be surprised if Pussy Riot has a male patriarch.
Oh yeah, I think they do, but we'll get on that another time.
What about Alexandra [a heavyset Femen activist occasionally deployed in protests to grotesque or humorous effect]? Do Femen's tactics address her needs?
The history of Femen is divided into two stages. One was when I was there and Victor was in charge. He was grooming girls to look as great as possible, and discouraging the girls who didn't look "like they should." Now they have a very different role, but when a guy was in control there was a strict idea of what a Femen activist should be.
The thing about Ukrainian girls all looking like Barbie dolls is half true. They do dress up to be gorgeous. Even on the street, they look like Femen girls. It's a culture where makeup and high heels are important, and they look like that every day.
It's a weird patriarchal culture, but we also have girls using their sexuality to their advantage, for the greater good. But then there's girls like Alexandra, who don't fit the bill and are made fun of.
Let's talk about Victor. Was it difficult to meet him?
I was around him all the time, but I wasn't allowed to film him. From the beginning I saw his presence but it took me a while to figure out exactly what his role was and to what extent he had power over these girls. I started secretly shooting him as much as possible. This is where the story was.
After I'd left the country, I called Victor up and said I'd been secretly filming him and asked for an interview. He screamed at me and said, "No, you're going to ruin the movement."
It was a very tumultuous time. I think his ego got the better of him and then he wanted the world to know [his role]. Maybe he wanted to fight for once, instead of remaining in the shadows.
Victor seems like a character from another era, a fervent ideologue. He uses very abusive language. Is that a tactic or is it a reflection of his character?
It's both. He had a tough life, spent three years in prison in Soviet Union for activism. He has an inflated sense of who he is. He thinks he has more power than he does. His temper gets out of control. He's a product of that time. He would say to me, "It's just a way of getting things done."
By yelling at them he wants to symbolize that patriarch they're fighting against. He sees their group as a little microcosm of the world, and these girls have to stand up and fight against him, and then against the world. He sees himself as justified because they're learning lessons about male domination and gender inequality. It's a very messy, complicated character. That's why it was fascinating. He's working on all these different levels of ideology.
You say he was imprisoned by the Soviets. About how old is he?
He's about 38. He was young [when he was in prison]. He was in jail and read Marx and Lenin and whatnot. When he came out, he wanted to be a revolutionary but couldn't find anyone who would listen to him except girls in a cultural center in [Khmelnitsky, in western Ukraine], who were impressionable and bored, and he really turned that into Femen.
In the archival footage you found, it seems that Anna [a female founder of Femen] is not a natural at taking charge or being in front of camera. It seems to support the narrative of Victor being a strong personality who needs to take charge.
The girls say that he didn't start the movement, but I saw what I saw. I found those videos of the early stuff and as far as I can see, his role has always been that big.
Do you think Victor was profiting personally from Femen?
I don't think he's in it for the money at all. He's a Marxist. He doesn't believe in money. It was more about power and him changing the world. He had a revolution in his head. He wanted to make an impact. Even his apartment was almost empty except for communist and feminist books.
Have you been in in touch with subjects since the unrest in Ukraine started?
Five of the girls in the film are in Paris now—they sought asylum. They left after it became harder to protest in Ukraine in order to start the Femen France movement. They're kind of out of the loop in terms of what's going on. I get emails from friends there who are scared and worried and don't know what the future will hold.
What about Victor? Isn't this the kind of thing he might have been waiting for?
Yeah, I'm surprised he hasn't spoken up. He's in Switzerland—he had to seek asylum as well. He was beaten up badly. Google shows an image of him with face double the size it was, and purple. He was beaten by authorities in Ukraine. So he fled. Maybe he has a grand plan, I don't know. We'll find out.
David Fellerath is now a freelance reporter covering culture and sports in the Triangle.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The naked truth"