REVIEW: I Am Femen

Reviewed by Marc Glassman

Oksana Shachko is every radical’s daydream and every oligarch’s nightmare. The co-founder of Ukraine’s FEMEN movement is feisty, feminist and fabulously charismatic. She’s the artist who created the look for FEMEN, with its splashy emphatic graphics, black and white colours augmented by rich reds, blues and gold, and such violently attractive accessories as crowns of barbed wire and heavy metal hockey masks. It was Oksana who first bared her breasts and buttocks to Ukrainian crowds, gestures that quickly expanded FEMEN’s audience.

Veteran Swiss director Alain Margot’s vastly entertaining film I Am Femen offers an entrée into the FEMEN movement through a profile of Ms. Shachko. Looking like a cross between Simone Simon in the original Cat People and Anna Karina in Une Femme est une femme, Oksana Shachko combines an aloof beauty with a lithe physique, marking her as a natural fighter who seems to relish her endless skirmishes with the police. Even her mother is in awe of her; clearly Oksana offers her advice, not vice-versa.

FEMEN has grown rapidly since 2008 and Oksana has played a major role in a movement that now has chapters in France, Germany and many other places including Quebec. Margot’s doc follows her as she protests dictatorships in Belarus and Russia, ending up being imprisoned and then ejected from both countries. Oksana’s courage is clear and so is her relentless dedication to the cause of bringing democracy and equality between the sexes to Ukraine—and now, the rest of the world.

Margot’s documentary subtly romanticizes Oksana. His camera catches her at picturesque moments, walking out of a train station as the snow falls on her face; in a rare moment dressed up for a formal event in a red dress with very high heels; and in a bath, with the camera discreetly viewing her through a mirror. Her bohemian working life in an apartment in Kiev is documented beautifully, with Oksana’s pictorial work placed on walls, on tables and even the floors of her flat. He emphasizes her ability to paint iconic pictures and, in a revelatory scene, has Oksana recall that she once considered being a nun but now has gone on to become the extreme opposite—a revolutionary.

Clearly, Oksana Shachko leads a life apart from the norm. We learn nothing about her private life. There are scenes of wild exuberance among the FEMEN core members but one struggles to understand the group’s dynamic. If Oksana is a close friend to any of the FEMEN members, it isn’t revealed in the film. In fact, at one point, Oksana observes that she might not be friends with any of them if they weren’t united by a common purpose.

Even more than Russia’s Pussy Riot, FEMEN trades on female beauty to make points about oligarchies, the media and the male gaze. If you want to make your point globally, there’s nothing easier than taking off your clothes. Oksana and her compatriots know this and have become internationally famous because of it. But that doesn’t take away from their courage or the critique they have of Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian politics—and, indeed, of most systems operating in the world.

Living the contradiction of being a feminist revolutionary artist and beauty, Oksana Shachko highly deserves a documentary. Alain Margot has delivered the goods, no doubt in complicity with Ms. Shachko.

For more info on the film, visit EyeSteelFilm’s website.

Directed by: Alain Margot
Starring Oksana Shachko, Anna Hutsol, Inna and Sasha Shevchenko
Screening Oct. 7 for Cinema Politica at the Bloor, and then in select theatres throughout Canada