IT'S the Ukranian feminist group that embarrassed President Putin. Its activists have staged many protests against sexual and political repression by stripping to their waists in carefully choreographed media stunts.
"Our mission is protest, our weapons are bare breasts," runs their slogan. Now, a new documentary screening at the Venice Film Festival has revealed that Femen was founded and is controlled by a man.
Ukraine is not a Brothel, directed by 28-year-old Australian film-maker Kitty Green, has "outed" Victor Svyatski as the mastermind behind the group. Mr Syvatski is known as a "consultant" to the movement. According to the Femen website, he was badly beaten up by the secret services in Ukraine earlier this summer because of his activities on behalf of the group.
However, Ms Green reveals that Svyatski is not simply a supporter of Femen but its founder and éminence grise. "It's his movement and he hand-picked the girls. He hand-picked the prettiest girls because the prettiest girls sell more papers. The prettiest girls get on the front page... that became their image, that became the way they sold the brand," she says.
Today, several of the original members of Femen - among them its best known campaigner Inna Shevchenko - are due in Venice for the launch of Ms Green's documentary. In recent days some of its original members have moved abroad to escape persecution in their home country, claiming that they have been "systematically harassed, severely beaten, kidnapped, and repeatedly received threats" from the authorities, while in June two French and one German member were jailed following a topless protest in Tunisia.
Until now, the full extent of Mr Svyatski's influence over Femen has not been realised. The film claims it was he who sent Femen activists on one of their most terrifying missions to Belarus where (according to testimony in the film) they were arrested by secret service agents, stripped, humiliated and abandoned in a forest close to the Ukranian border.
Ms Green accompanied them on this trip. She told The Independent that her footage was stolen by the KGB and that she was abducted, "kept in confinement for about eight hours," and then deported to Lithuania.
In the documentary, Ms Green pays tribute to Mr Svyatski's organisational abilities and charisma but questions his influence over the group.
"He can be really horrible but he is fiercely intelligent," she said of Mr Svyatski, who is interviewed on camera in her film. Ms Green spent a year living in a tiny apartment in Kiev with four of the Femen members and filming their stunts. "I would shoot their protests and they would take them and put them on their website," she said.
Only gradually did she become aware that Mr Svyatski was pulling the strings behind the scenes. "Once I was in the inner circle, you can't not know him. He is Femen."
Initially, Mr Svyatski refused to allow Ms Green to film him but she was determined that he should feature. "It was a big moral thing for me because I realised how this organisation was run. He was quite horrible with the girls. He would scream at them and call them bitches."
When the Femen founder finally spoke to Ms Green, he sought to justify his role within the organisation and acknowledged the paradox of being a "patriarch" running a feminist protest group. "These girls are weak," he says in the film.
"They don't have the strength of character. They don't even have the desire to be strong. Instead, they show submissiveness, spinelessness, lack of punctuality, and many other factors which prevent them from becoming political activists. These are qualities which it was essential to teach them."
Mr Svyatski insists to Ms Green that his influence on the group is positive. However, when he is asked directly whether he started Femen "to get girls", he replies: "Perhaps yes, somewhere in my deep subconscious."
One of the Femen campaigners talks of the relationship between the women and the movement's founder as being akin to "Stockholm syndrome", in which hostages feel sympathy for their captors.
"We are psychologically dependent on him and even if we know and understand that we could do this by ourselves without his help, it's psychological dependence," she says.
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