The necessity for and the corruptibility of modern political activism is portrayed with beautiful formal imagery and slick editing in Ukraine is Not a Brothel. An Australian and Ukrainian co-production is directed by Kitty Green – whose only previous credit was as the stills photographer on Jonathan auf der Heide’s Van Dieman’s Land and various ABC documentary content; auf der Heide is a producer on this film – who only learned of Femen, the nude protest group at the center of her debut film, after spotting an article about them in discarded newspaper on a train in Melbourne. Being the home of her ancestors, Green obviously had a personal stake in the state of the Ukraine, but the film is ultimately much more than just an expose on the state of women’s rights and feminism in this nation, nor is it simply a behind the scenes look at a radical protest movement.
Watching Ukraine is Not a Brothel and one can really get a sense of how far the documentary ‘genre’ has come as an artform. This is a debut film made in a country where running water isn’t even necessarily an expected right, and yet Green’s film is a beauty to the eyes. She and her cinematography Michael Latham have composed beautiful images one right after the other that do more than just document the action. Rather, they help inform the drama and allow audiences to see a side of the Ukraine that they may otherwise not expect. It would have been easy to drown the film in ugly, realist tones of grey and brown, but they find interesting ways to view their subjects with a keen eye and it allows the film to remain a far more interesting visual experience than one might expect from a film about naked feminists, the sex trade, and patriarchy societies run amok in Eastern Europe.
As an Australian film it also warrants strong mention. Like Kim Mordaunt’s narrative feature The Rocket last year, as well as Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, Warwick Ross’s Red Obsession, Genevieve Bailey’s I Am Eleven, it goes further afield to find its story. In all the hubbub over what constitutes an Australian film or not (is it mere funding or a distinctly Australian story?), I think we should definitely be proud that we are building up filmmakers who can see beyond short-sighted patriotism when it comes to what is or isn’t worth of discussion and debate.
The true wonder of Green’s film that it is one that morphs from being about one thing into another thing right in front of your very eyes. The spectrum of topics all come with an inherent power, but while the message is important thankfully, much like the idea behind Femen’s naked anarchists, the vessel to tell it is one of unique beauty and surprising skill. By going inside Femen she has revealed more than anybody more interested in their bodies than their messages, but has also helped reveal the alarming ways that contemporary political movements have not learned from their forefathers and that despite all the good they can do and have done, internal squabbling and bickering may very well be an element of this world that is impossible to change. If Ukraine is a nation on the frontier of social change then the brash, bold protests of Femen would certainly be a world first method of getting there, but Ukraine is Not a Brothel it ultimately not about the protests themselves, or even about Ukraine, but rather the open and honest subjects of Femen that she has surrounded herself with. They make for funny, hypocritical, confused, sad pieces of a global puzzle. All with a soundtrack by – who else? – Boney M.