When I first heard of Femen, a group of “feminists” who protest…something (everything?) by baring their breasts in public and selling images of topless members, I assumed it was a front group for selling porn. As any good marketer will tell you, consumers, even consumers of pornography, can feel guilty about conspicuous consumption. If a marketer can build the mechanism for alleviating guilt into the purchase price, it allows the consumer to feel better about the purchase. (Zizek talks about this in his Starbucks riff in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.) Why buy Eastern European porn when you can get it for free with a small donation to a group protesting for a noble cause?
But then time passed and the inevitable “gotcha” reports never seemed to come from the news media. Pussy Riot went to jail and got their own documentary. Was it possible that Femen’s inability to articulate a specific message had less to do with its members being props than it did with the group being in the first stage–garnering attention–of any movement’s history?
When I first heard of Ukraine is Not a Brothel, Kitty Green’s documentary stemming from interviews with Femen members in the Ukraine, I assumed it would be, like Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, a celebration of the protesters that provided no contemplative space for those who questioned the means, if not the objectives, of the protesters.
Turns out I was right about some things and wrong about others. That means the film was better than I expected but still not quite good enough to make me think anything I didn’t already suspect or feel anything other than, “that’s a shame.”
The women of Femen, so the film claims, are orchestrated by a male patriarch who admits on camera that he started the organization “to get girls.” The women have no idea who gives money to the organization or how much. (Based on the way they live, it is also unclear how much of that money they receive.) Membership appears to be selective–and those unwilling to go topless are not welcome. There is one overweight member profiled in the film who is included not as one of the members in group protests but as a kind of grotesque in exhibitions or her own.
That’s enough for a magazine or Sunday newspaper profile, but we don’t really do those any more, do we? Documentaries have taken over some roles that ought to be more fully occupied by journalists. Consequently, material has to be stretched to a feature length. I guess that’s better than having everything in sound bite form, but the exposé here gets teased and delayed and stretched until I’m not sure if it really is an exposé or it is just playing along.
What we get while we are waiting is discussion from the Ukranian women themselves. They detail their mistreatment, their reasons for wanting to be feminists, and the push back they get from friends and family. This element of the film is interesting–imagine what Blackfish would have been if the first hour had been filled with interviews of the whales explaining why they chose Sea World–but the film shies away from really pushing the women to explain their participation and how it is feminist. They appear sincere. But is this just part of the script? (I was reminded more than once of how Linda Lovelace reported in Ordeal that she was always threatened with beatings by her pimp if she did not claim to be an enthusiastic and willing participant.) Is it possible that Femen members have truly bought into the empowerment rhetoric and think they are doing something brave rather than being exploited? Sure, I guess. Or could it be, as I suspect, that most of them self-aware but find this type of sexual exploitation preferable to other forms of making a living available to them in such a patriarchal and oppressive society? (One Femen member admits to working as an exotic dancer in the evenings; she admits to being unable to reconcile protesting sexual exploitation while simultaneously participating in it for profit.)
Like an anti-war politician who wants to “support the troops” while criticizing what they do, the film at times appears to want to support the women while lamenting the environment that forces them into such hypocrisies. But only at times. I typically prefer documentaries that trust me to draw my own conclusions more than I do those that tell me what to think. But Ukraine is Not a Brothel appears to want to have it both ways. For instance, there are a lot more scenes of the topless protests than are necessary to convey how Femen members are demeaned, if that is what the film truly wishes to convey. Similarly, I had trouble finding a publicity still from the film that didn’t feature a topless protester.
Okay, fine, I’ve seen more than enough breasts in “R”-rated movies to make modesty claims over a film like this sound equally hypocritical. But just as it is hard to make a cogent argument about how public exhibitionism helps combat the exploitation and subjugation of women, so too is it puzzling to figure out how the film treats its subjects much differently than the organization it is profiling.