Topless protest group Femen’s story on film

We spoke to Femen Quebec founder Xenia Chernyshova about the the international protest group and the new documentary Ukraine Is Not a Brothel.

Ukraine Is Not a Brothel

Australian filmmaker Kitty Green’s documentary Ukraine Is Not a Brothel will likely leave any viewer with mixed feelings. The doc which claims to tell “The Femen Story” — the history of the topless feminist protest group that started in Ukraine in  2008 — is interesting and engaging, but riddled with conflicting ideas about feminism and patriarchy.

The biggest problem of many presented in the film is the suggestion that the group is led by a man named Victor Svyatski, revealing this feminist anti-patriachy group as one that buys into patriarchal ideas. But if you dig deeper, the film’s inclusion of Victor and these naive, hypocritical notions of feminism actually call attention to how ingrained in society and culture these misogynistic ideas are — and that there’s still a long way to go. There is a definite sadness rooted in this story.

This week, I spoke to Femen Quebec founder Xenia Chernyshova about her feelings on the film and the actual goals and politics of the group in our own country.

posterKayla Marie Hillier: As a member of Femen, what did you think of the film?
Xenia Chernyshova: I think that if you really know the movement, if you know the Femen story or if you were kind of curious about it, it’s good to watch it and find out more about the founders personal lives and learn more about the activists themselves as women, as human beings.

If you don’t know about Femen and this is the first time you’ve seen something about Femen, of course, you’re going to get a bit confused. In the movie, the director Kitty Green, she didn’t really talk about all of the politics, the ideology, the goals of these women — what they’re really fighting for concretely with every single action. She’s more concerned with their personalities, and that’s also really, really interesting. But it does allow people to judge very easily, especially when she concentrates on the role of Victor Svyatski, who’s just an element. He was an element. He was part of the group. He’s still kind of a part of the group, but everything changed. Right now, the Ukrainian activists are all refugees in different countries, or political refugees — or they’ve stopped their activism because it’s too dangerous right now in the Ukraine. And of course the movement is international, everything is much more independent. Every single branch in different countries works independently. We talk sometimes to each other, sometimes we’ll meet, but we’re still in different countries and we’re getting involved in different political and social problems.

ukraineKMH: How did you initially get involved with Femen?
XC: I’m from the Ukraine originally. It wasn’t my plan to start Femen here because I didn’t know how to do that. Femen is not an organization that’s structured — it really is a kind of rebellion. I just started to protest because situations here made me feel like I had to fight. I decided to protest. It led to the media very quickly, because the first time, I got beaten up. The second time, me and two other women went to Parliament and it was the first time a woman achieved something like that — going to the Parliament and actually disturbing the social order.

Then we started to use Femen tactics and it became international and we decided to try and find a way for Femen to exist in North America and try to find problems that concern Canadian women especially and to see how the movement grows. For me, I was just one of the first women to go out there and use my sexuality and my voice to speak about women’s issues and social issues, to look for a way to question our society and to find answers for women. In democracies we think it’s good to protest, we’re allowed to protest, but in liberal countries nobody actually wants women or anybody to protest because it’s disturbing.

KMH: For Femen Quebec, what are the core beliefs and things that you’re fighting for?
XC: It’s really hard to explain what a patriarchal society is because we all live in a patriarchal society. We’re part of it. We can analyze it but we’re not going to find a very clear answer. In Femen discussions, we’ve ended up with three main observations, which are: the fact that religion, dictatorships or politics and the sex industry are the three main aspects that dominate or have control over women’s lives.

ukraine3In North America, we have to go further. Religion is not so obvious, it’s not so clear. It’s very confusing. The sex industry is a major issue, it’s a big problem. Especially because here we deal with pimps and mafia, and in other countries, too, it’s undercover. All the problems in the sex industry put ourselves very much in danger. And with politics it’s not like fighting a dictatorship. It’s, again, also much more confusing. And we also have a fourth element which is very important: the commodification of women. The fact that women are used by our economy and that we don’t have the freedom to be human beings. It’s all about performance, it’s all about appearance, women over 40 aren’t very welcome in our society because everything, again, is a construction on how we look. We live in a society where you have Photoshop and all these surgical aesthetic transformations. We have more and more girls and women who are completely ashamed of their bodies, the number just increases. When you were a teenager you hate your body, and when you’re aging you continue to hate your body even more. It’s frustrating and it’s completely oppressing for women.

Here we’re working a lot on the aesthetic revolution. We’re trying to help women become more free in their bodies, emancipated, really, in their bodies. But it’s hard because women are ashamed of their bodies and also because society and media don’t want to see women who are real. We have more and more women with different body types. So, I think right now there is some kind of aesthetic revolution which is slowly, slowly growing. But again, it’s a very hard job. Going topless is to accept to be judged on your body, to be attacked on your body. And then again you are attacked because of your political ideas. So you’re in the worst situation: you’re attacked because of your brain and you’re attacked because of your body.

logoKMH: Do you think good or bad, that it’s good that the film is drawing attention to Femen?
XC: The movie, for me, it’s still inspiring — even if it shows some aspects that are not so feminist. Being a feminist right now is a big mess in any kind of society. It’s complicated to find our own way to say, “Yes. I am a feminist and I’m proud of it.” That we’re not scared of men and we don’t want to scare men. That you want to be a woman who can be loved and can love — who can be a mother and also be a sexual human being. We’re searching for an identity right now. In our societies, more and more, we try to put women in only one category. And again, it’s such a big mistake because women are complex, we’re very different and we don’t want the same things. And sometimes in our own lives we’re playing different roles. We can be so many different things. ■

Ukraine Is Not a Brothel opens at Cinéma du Parc (3575 Parc) today, Friday, May 23. This evening’s 5:15 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. screenings  will be followed by a Q&A with Xenia Chernyshova.