Review by Justin Goodman
It wasn’t until 1994 that The Second Sex, Simone De Beauvoir’s 1949 feminist classic that partially established Second-Wave Feminism, was translated into Ukrainian. For context, America and the UK respectively passed the Violence Against Women Act and the Criminal Justice Act in the same year. Ukraine is far behind, needless to say. But this is only half the purpose of Kitty Green’s 2013 documentary, Ukraine is Not a Brothel, which focuses on FEMEN, a Ukrainian feminist organization that started in 2008 and became famous for its topless protests. (Googling them is NSFW, FYI). Instead of the dreary advocacy that issues its points unquestioningly, as you’d get from the Michael Moore school of documentary, Green pursues the richer complexities of FEMEN’s history: a verbally and physically abusive patriarch, Victor Sviatsky, founded the organization which “fights patriarchy.”
Of course, Green also defines the volume of his role by end capping the documentary with Boney M.’s disco classic “Ra Ra Rasputin”: “lover of the Russian queen,” yes, being romantic of the co-founder Anna Hustol, but equally, “he ruled the Russian land and never mind the czar.” It’s a cute nod to music that would vanish in America only a year later (symbolic, in its way, since Victor himself would vanish from FEMEN’s head in a year’s time, too) as much as the hyper-synth kick-line is an unsettling frame for a montage of women being brutally carried into police vehicles. The gaudiness is also fitting since the film is partially candid, giving it a raw appearance—at one point there is a floor shot, Victor’s pacing feet, and his voice calling the women “fucking stupid,” among other things—which matches FEMEN’s protest style, “sextremism.”
In America, we might associate a word like this with the radical performance artists that dominated the ‘60s and ’70s. I think of the perennially discomforting Interior Scroll performed by Carolee Schneeman in 1975 where, standing on a table, she slowly extracted a rolled piece of paper from her vagina as she read it. (Also NSFW, obviously). This is not FEMEN. The four principle figures are slim, tall, longhaired beauties that shout while shirtless. The least marketable display, in fact—and every aspect of their bodies are commoditized, purchasable at FEMEN’s website, posters and shirts common props in the activist’s homes—has the sole large-bodied woman dress like “a cheap prostitute.” She’s the “Sex Bomb” and the others are Ukrainian transit authorities, trying to block people from the train. It’s unsurprising that this performance, over any of the others, is given the most attention.
Green is a thorough feminist. No exploitation goes unaddressed. Her interviews are not the fluff of an admirer, puffy with enthusiasm, but filled with vigor and uncertainty as to the effectiveness of a feminist movement that earns money through its bodies and whether (she asks Victor) a movement begun by the patriarchy can undo it. Audre Lorde’s “The Master’s Tool’s Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” was on his and Kitty’s minds. And despite its unserious presentation (Victor is introduced wearing mask, saying, “I rabbit. I fucking rabbit” and laughing) these interviews have all the weight and authority of theory behind them without its literal intervention. Ukraine is Not a Brothel lacks, however, also lacks what Taylor Swift’s activism lacks. FEMEN is homogenous, and Kitty Green doesn’t much pursue the matter beyond a nod to the “Sex Bomb’s” weight.
The documentary essentially labels this failure as the nature of progress in agreement with Victor, who sees himself as a necessary beginning since “women are weak, stupid” and so on. The circular imagery—Anna on her way to the airport, leaving Ukraine for Paris, end caps the film—defends this circular logic; at a protest against domestic abuse in Turkey, FEMEN paints bruises on themselves and dons niqabs, shouting “Why?” It’s a scene amplified in horror by shots of polis tearing the screaming women into their vans. Yet all I could think of was Gayatri Spivak’s famous essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak,” and the sentiment that the best intentions of Colonialism still boil down to “white men saving brown women from brown men.” The only difference, of course, being “white men teaching white women to save brown women from brown men.”
Regardless, the sequence following asides the cynical in favor of the painful series of recollections where they recount how the Belarusian KGB terrorized them with the implication of rape and being burned to death, only to force them to run through the woods to Ukraine naked. The humiliation makes clear that the step-by-step of the documentary isn’t proscriptive—one of the first feminist treaties, the 1792 A Vindication of the Rights of Women, was written by Mary Wollstonecraft—but highlights a cultural difference on its way to remedy. For a country whose feminism was heavily suppressed by Soviet ideologues until its independence in 1991, whose now-overthrown monarchial president justified not debating his 2010 opponent because “a woman’s place is in the kitchen,” criticism has to be restrained by a willingness to permit context.
It wasn’t until 2001 that Ukraine finally passed a domestic violence bill along the lines of Violence Against Women Act and the Criminal Justice Act. It has not helped. And the year that FEMEN kicked Victor Sviatsky out, the year Ukraine is Not a Brothel played at the 70th International Venice Film Festival, FEMEN ended in Ukraine for fear of their lives. With the Euromaidan Revolution’s end, the embers of it being a country-sundering rift, these uncertainties over the validity of the movement are tempered by the fear there may not be any feminism at all in Ukraine for a time to come. But this is not why Ukraine Is Not a Brothel has staying power. In its indigenously lived yet intellectually distanced approach, Kitty Green sets a standard for documentation by turning its subject’s glossy spectacle into self-reflection.
Digital release from Magnolia Home Entertainment on March 8.