Saturday, 26 April 2014

UKRAINE IS NOT A BROTHEL Review By Greg Klymkiw - HOT DOCS 2014, Breasts VS Patriarchy, HotDocsMustSee

Beyond the myriad of films focusing upon Ukraine that are screening in the Toronto Hot Docs 2014 International Festival of Documentary Cinema, the past few years have yielded a ludicrous number of pictures training their lens upon the beleaguered nation. For all intents and purposes, Ukraine has always remained a colonized entity, even in its years of "freedom" since the fall of communism. With the recent and miraculous revolution in Kyiv's Maidan and the subsequent assault upon Ukraine's borders by Russia, the country's most powerful enemy (and frankly, the greatest threat to all of Eastern Europe), one can only imagine the floodgates opening full throttle on Ukraine-centred docs. My hope, however, is that two of the very best films to focus on Ukraine, Ukraine is Not a Brothel, by Kitty Green and Love Me by Jonathon Narducci stay first and foremost ahead of what is, and will be, an over-crowded pack.

Ukraine is Not a Brothel (2014) ****
Dir. Kitty Green

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Preamble 1 - The Bug
So there we were in "the Old Country". Upon entering a nondescript government office building in Kyiv, my wife and I both required immediate use of the, uh, facilities. I spotted the Men's washroom at once, its door adorned with the telltale Cyrillic letter pronounced "Ch" for "Choloveek" (Man), but I couldn't see where the women's washroom was. I asked Sasha, our fixer-translator-driver (don't go to Ukraine without one) the whereabouts of the ladies' "convenience". He pointed down the hallway. "When you get to end, turn right," he said in slightly broken English, then laughed and added, "Look for bug." I guffawed heartily in response. It's a good, old fashioned joke amongst Ukrainian men. The Cyrillic letter emblazoned upon the doors of female water closets represents the Ukrainian word "zheenka". Pronounced "zh", the word's first letter, printed or hand-written, does indeed look like a bug. Most tellingly, the word "zheenka" not only means "woman", but is in fact the word used for "wife". They are, essentially, one and the same. If you're married or otherwise significantly-othered, your wife is your woman. Yes, in a virulently patriarchal society and culture, women in Ukraine, at least in abbreviation, are little more than bugs - to be squashed, of course, as Sasha's "look for bug" joke suggested. "This is my woman," you would say whilst introducing someone to your wife if, in fact, you bothered to introduce your "bug" at all.

Preamble 2 - Sexual Slavery
Ukraine's sex industry since the collapse of Communism was huge. Brothels and strip clubs filled (and continue to fill) every city. All of it is run by gangsters (or, if you will, most government officials). The sex slavery business, as first identified in Victor Malarek's seminal book "The Natashas" was, during most of the 90s and early 2000s, especially prevalent in snatching its victims from Ukraine. Poverty runs rampant and women are often looked upon as property. During those dark days, we personally observed the especially horrific sex slave underground running out of the nation's orphanages where pimps and their vans, the windows painted black in the rear holding areas, would wait daily for the latest teenage girls being officially released into a world of poverty. As they'd stagger, stunned and terrified, into a brave new world, the pimps would herd them into the vans and off they'd go - sold into sex slavery the world over.

Preamble 3 - Femen
This, then, is the world that inspired "Femen", one of the most influential performance art and activist movements in the world. "Femen" gained fame and notoriety for their protests in public places. This clutch of gorgeous, young Ukrainian women, a la Russia's "Pussy Riot", but somehow far bolder and decidedly feminist in their approach, would show up in places often tied to Ukraine's patriarchy (the bell tower at Kyiv's Orthodox Vatican-styled ancient city, The Lavra, for instance) and tear their clothes off and nakedly, brazenly, bare their breasts in the name of Ukrainian womanhood to declare, first and foremost, that Ukraine is NOT a brothel.

The Film - Kitty Green's brave, inspiring and ultimately shocking film Ukraine is Not a Brothel feels, for its first half, like a fun and freewheeling look at these cool, young Ukrainian women with a profoundly pro-female-empowerment message. Opening with the ballistic missile fire of Boney M's "(Rah, Rah) Rasputin" and the aforementioned breast-baring protest shenanigans, Green's got us hooked (line and sinker) into the rhyme, reason and rhythm of this delectable bevy of "Ukraine Girls (to borrow from the Beatles) who leave the West behind." For much of its running time, the picture's as fun, fresh and provocative as one would expect - nay, demand, of any movie entitled Ukraine is Not a Brothel.

This is a beautifully shot and finely observed film that takes us behind the scenes as the women prepare for their protests, then follows them to a variety of said protests, covers the savage responses of both the public and authorities and is finally, chockfull of insightful interviews dolloped throughout, zeroing in on these clearly very intelligent and vibrant young women.

The politics and feminism are freewheeling and fun, but as the movie progresses, danger does lurk behind every corner. Protest patriarchy in a patriarchal (and frankly corrupt, if not downright criminal) society, trouble is sure to follow, especially as demonstrated upon discovering the horrific tale of Femen's protest field trip to Belarus where the ladies are stripped naked and shoved into a forest on the border of Ukraine - forced at gunpoint to march their way back to their homeland.

Where the film begins to shock - yes, at least for me - is with the introduction of a genuinely malevolent force behind the Femen movement. There are hints throughout, to be sure, but we tend to file them under, "Yeah, let's ignore this and have fun with the lassies instead." Once the noxious influence is revealed in its full and grotesquely foul form, we begin to realize that something is a tad rotten in the state of the birthplace of Kyivan-Rus. What's revealed to us (as it was, ultimately to Green as she was making the film), seems diabolically nefarious. The activities of Femen become infused with the sort of foul patriarchal manipulations that began to remind me of the horrendous discoveries I was making in Ukraine during my own sojourns. What's revealed as the motivating force behind the feminist performance artists feels like the very thing designed to keep women in their place in Ukraine.

Once we come face to face with a Rasputin-like evil (no more "rah, rah"), Ukraine is Not a Brothel becomes sickeningly creepy. This, of course, is what makes for great drama and great cinema - when the bed of roses is growing from within a fetid fertilizer of rank manipulation.

In spite of this surprising element, director Green, girds all her resolve and plunges forward, taking her exploration of these women well beyond the unexpected creep factor. Finally, she sticks to the women with a loyalty that can ONLY come from building enough trust in her subjects that she can begin to ask EXTREMELY tough questions.

The answers the Femen ladies provide are full of self reflection, self analysis and the sort of intelligence we first fell for - in spite of what we discover about them a little past the halfway point. If anything, the film is almost perfectly structured to mirror the actual events that transpired in chronological order. The film transforms, quite miraculously and once we become aware of it. we're cascaded along with the kind of magic that's not only unique to the form of documentary, but organically inherent in cinema at its most profound levels. Green's film is, finally, as much an exploration for us, as it is for its filmmaker and most profoundly, for the brilliant young women of Femen.

Ukraine is currently on the precipice of disaster or glory. If Green's film proves anything (and believe me, it proves a whole LOT), it especially suggests that Ukraine's future MUST include both women and youth. The old shackles of patriarchy need to be shaken free and if anything, it's women who might well be the force necessary to maintain Ukraine's freedom in the face of the greatest threat to the nation's sovereignty.

Shevchenko's Kateryna
No beguiling Mona Lisa smile
One of the most profound artistic symbols of Ukraine is the astonishing work by the legendary visual artist and great Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. "Kateryna" is probably the closest Ukrainian equivalent to the mysterious "Mona Lisa" in terms of its artistry, cultural significance to Ukraine and overall impact in terms of capturing a sense of Ukrainian womanhood. There is, however, no beguiling "Mona Lisa" smile, but a sense of almost complacent sorrow in the subject's face. She is front and centre, barefoot upon the rich earth of Ukraine and bookended by two masculine entities - a dashing soldier riding off to war and the stay-at-home lout, smoking, drinking and ogling her lazily in repose. Painted in 1842, this is the image that has endured - perhaps more significantly than any other work of Ukrainian visual art, save perhaps for the quiet impressionism of Olexandr Murashko and his notable 1911 "Annunciation" portrait which presents a young woman cast as the angel Gabriel, telling yet another about the birth of Christ.

In both these seminal works, Ukrainian women are either flanked by patriarchs, or indeed, represent patriarchal elements of Christianity. In contrast to this, the performance art as activism of Femen might well be the future of art and its place as a weapon, the final blow, if you will, against Ukraine's patriarchal dominance that keeps, not only its women at bay, but by extension, its youth, its very future.

Murashko's Annunciation, Shevechenko's Kateryna
Patriarchy all consuming: Imbuing the spirit,
surrounding the body of Ukrainian womanhood

In this sense, both the film and subjects of Ukraine is Not a Brothel, via the commitment and artistry of the movie's director, indeed seeks, I think, to prove that Ukraine is not ONLY not a brothel, but a country as a state of being rooted in its real power. Ukraine, personified as matriarchal, rather than patriarchal, is possibly the key to its future survival. As such, the country must not be bought and sold, but will need, in order to stave off the horse trading at every level, the kind of commitment and political will to change all that might only come via very concerted efforts to reflect upon what the goals must be and how to achieve them beyond all shackles, beyond all influence, save for that which comes from within.

Ukraine is Not a Brothel plays Toronto's Hot Docs 2014. For tickets, showtimes and playmates, visit the festival's website HERE. Distributed by Kinosmith.