The first time I heard of the half-naked female activism group FEMEN back in 2013, it was largely by accident, a link in a comment on some loosely related Reddit post or something like that. I assumed it was a flash in a pan, something that stopped almost as soon as it started, given the hostile reception the girls received outside the Georgian embassy in July 2011. Sitting comfortably behind a desk (and the First Amendment) here in the United States, it's strange to think that protestors can just be assaulted in broad daylight for trying to spread a message. Actually, that's not that uncommon in the States anymore, either. I digress.
I Am FEMEN chronicles the evolution of FEMEN from its beginnings until about a year ago. The movement started back in April 2008 in response to the gang rape and murder of a young girl in Ukraine. The movement quickly spread to protest sex tourism, animal abuse, and civil rights. Their medium has always been their bodies, starting out in underwear and, soon after, they bared their breasts following the lead of Oksana Shachko, one of the group's founders. Protests started in Kiev, Ukraine, but quickly spread to other countries including France, Belarus, Switzerland, and Russia. France and Switzerland were generally tolerant of their activities, but in Belarus they were violently interrogated and threatened, and risked outright execution in Russia, from which Oksana was banned for life after her protests against Vladimir Putin and refusing to abandon her beliefs and ideology.
The documentary plays out sort of like a video diary of the activists, showing how their props were made, protests organized, footage of the events in action, and then inevitably the moments after which the girls were released from jail every time they got arrested. Living in a nation where Girls Gone Wild commercials run practically every night, it can be easy to dismiss the topless protesters as people simply seeking a thrill or some easy attention, but there's so much more going on here. There is so little in it for them. The ladies put their lives on the line to spread awareness of corruption and human rights offenses that make the violence and backlash of the mid-Twentieth Century civil rights movement in the U.S. look mild by comparison.
The stakes continue to rise throughout the film, and it's tense and uncomfortable to watch at times. These are ordinary, every day people who got off the benches and decided to act against those in power, and are getting brow-beaten left and right for their efforts. Yet they press on, knowing they are planting seeds of change that may not come to fruition in their lifetimes, fleeing to places that will offer asylum while they plan the next protest. They stayed out of jail as long as they did because nudity doesn't cause nearly the stir in Europe it does in the U.S. Speaking out against your government...that's another matter entirely.
The disc has a few previews on it, but no frills or extras to speak of. In a way, I'm glad, because over-commercializing this film would somewhat undermine its purpose and meaning.
If you think you've heard the whole story about what's going on across the pond, with Putin, with Ukraine, with human rights violations, see this film. I spoke with a friend today who lives in Kiev and asked whether he'd encountered FEMEN. He said he had, and that while they're causing a stir, the people aren't supporting them like they ought to be. The residue of decades-gone, iron-heel Soviet rule lingers thick among the older generations, and has many still petrified to speak or act out against the admittedly terrible and broken status quo.
See this film. It's not a comfortable ride -- it's raw and ugly with a dash of, as they call it, "sextremism," but these women are fighting for basic rights you enjoy day in and day out, and they deserve your attention.