What do you do when you need to send a desperate message, but no one wants to hear it?
Protest very loudly.
And that is precisely what Femen does. Founded in Ukraine in 2008, Femen is a feminist protest organization that screams to the world that Ukrainian women are not prostitutes and that their country is not a sex-tourism destination.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union many Ukrainian women had little choice but to work in the illegal sex industry as prostitutes and sometimes sex slaves. Femen wanted to change this perception of Ukrainian women by fighting against sexism and patriarchy. To do so, they organize topless protests and write messages over their bodies such as 'Ukraine is not a brothel!' or 'protest for peace'.
Each time the group protested in Ukraine, however, they faced a brutal struggle against Ukrainian forces.
The 2013 documentary Ukraine Is Not A Brothel provides a very graphic depiction of the physical abuses Femen suffered at the hands of police. Sometimes, they were beaten. On occasion, the group’s members were even sexually abused in custody. Sadly, they grew accustomed to such treatment, accepting it as a consequence of their protest.
"I can be several hours in jail, even one day or two if that's what it takes... However, I cannot think of being in jail for months or years," says Inna Shevchenko, one of the main leaders of the organization. For that reason, Shevchenko requested political asylum in France. She now lives in Paris, where she is trying to make Femen's message global.
The film also explores the reasons several Femen members choose to join the organization. Most of the women found solace in the group membership and were motivated as much by fighting for gender equality as by its collective identity.
Inna Shevchenko admits that she wouldn't know who she is if it was not for Femen. She said that was a vital part of her identity. If Femen disappears, she says, she has nothing; she is nothing.
For others, the group is a refuge. It gives them hope and makes them feel valuable in a country that historically values women less than men.
Another Femen member confesses in the film that she is a different person while protesting and is conscious that for at least one moment, she has the power to change things.
"Ninety-nine percent of Ukrainian girls don't even know what feminism is. I shouldn't be smiling...," says another Femen member, Anna Shevchenko.
Despite its message of empowerment, the group is not immune from contradictions.
"Is it hypocrite to be a part of Femen and to work as a dancer in a nightclub as well?” says Shevchenko. “It might be hypocrite. But I need it to survive." .
However, the biggest battle that Femen has had to fight so far is that against itself.
In this way, the film explores Femen’s internal power struggle. Despite the organization’s feminist mantra, Femen was founded by a man—Victor Svyatski. Femen stands against women's submission to men, but often found itself subject to Victor's manipulation. Victor himself admits as much in the documentary.
"Yeah, it's something paradoxical,” he says. “But these paradoxes are found all along the history of humanity. Marx was a bourgeois who fought against bourgeoisie. So was Lenin. We are a patriarchal organization who fights against patriarchy.”
As of two years ago, Victor is no longer a part of the organization, according to Inna Shevchenko. Femen activists realized that they had a relationship of dependency with Victor—perhaps, the film suggests, it is cultural habit. Women in Ukraine have somehow always been dependent on men. In order for their message to be heard and valued, Femen’s women had to fight first against the contradictory shadows that loomed over their organization.