‘Winter on Fire’ tracks the 93 days Ukraine fought for its identity
Streets are scattered with stones and shell casings. Winter fog mixes with the last wisps of tear gas. The wounded and the dead have been carried away, and those who are left hunker at the barricades. Police advance. Snipers take to rooftops. Bodies fall and the Ukrainian revolution, as brutal as it is cinematic, enters a new day in the battered capital of Kiev.
Evgeny Afineevsky’s “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” is a documentary from the front lines, a visceral portrait of a nation’s battle for its identity. The film tracks the 93 days — between November 2013 and February 2014 — when tens of thousands of protesters rallied in frigid Independence Square against gunfire, arrests and beatings to bring down President Viktor Yanukovych and upset a dangerous regional order.
With the immediacy of a news bulletin and the intimacy of a novel, “Winter on Fire,” which opens theatrically and on Netflix on Oct. 9, lacks important historical nuance even as it traces protesters struggling to free their country from Russian manipulation more than two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union. Public outrage erupted when Yanukovych, who would eventually flee the capital in darkness, edged closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin and backed away from a popular plan to strengthen ties with the European Union.
Stirrings of revolt gathered into huge anti-government demonstrations that startled the world. The uprising drew from across Ukrainian society: students, mothers, welders, priests, teachers and retired soldiers. Their stories moved at a brisk pace as crosses, coffins and placards were carried through the snow. Molotov cocktails streaked the night amid the baroque architecture of downtown Kiev.
“A friend called and said, ‘You need to come down here, history is being made,’” said Afineevsky, who packed a camera and flew to Kiev from his home in Los Angeles. “It was young people wanting their voices heard. Then it started to unfold, the police beatings.... It was so strange and so horrible.”
The director, who was born in Russia, camped in Independence Square, also known as the Maidan, with the protesters and enlisted 28 volunteer cameramen. A few of the photographers were wounded as the momentum shifted back and forth from the police to demonstrators, whose ranks were supported by religious leaders. Demonstrators wore pots as helmets, stormed police lines and retreated to a makeshift hospital at a monastery.
“What happened on the Maidan was an amazing and important chapter in Ukraine’s history,” said Afineevsky, who has made a number of documentaries, plus the romantic comedy feature “Oy Vey! My Son Is Gay.” “As a filmmaker, you want to tell the story to the world, but to me, it became a tribute to the people who stood against corruption. The people are the power.”
That is a narrow slice of a larger picture. The film does not explore the political and cultural complexities of Ukraine, which won its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. An array of deep-seated story lines, including the ambitions of ultra-nationalists and a swath of eastern Ukraine that supported becoming part of Russia, would play out after the revolution when Putin’s forces annexed Crimea and backed separatists against the new government in Kiev.
Variety film critic Jay Weissberg writes that “Winter on Fire” amasses an “impressive amount of video footage but is hamstrung by its rose-tinted ‘the people united will never be defeated’” point of view. The Hollywood Reporter says that the film has “undeniable power” but that it does “grow repetitive because it provides so little historical context or a larger overview of how the growing authoritarianism of Putin’s Russia is affecting this part of the world.”
Evocatively photographed and woven with memorable images, such as a pianist playing in the chill near the barricades, “Winter on Fire” is reminiscent of “The Square,” the Academy Award-nominated documentary about the Egyptian uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Both films sweep the viewer into the vortex of dissent and illuminate what Afineevsky calls “the patriotic coming together of a people.”
The film reinforces the power of social media and today’s technology to document swift, world-shaping events into collage-like productions that lie somewhere between reality television and high art. Whether in the alleys of Cairo, the bombed souks of Syria or the broken streets of Kiev, the cruelties and virtues that collide in searing national narratives are increasingly accessible at a time when we view the world through the prism of an iPhone.
“Winter on Fire” is ingrained with the tenacity and sardonic humor of voices that are intimate with despair and political betrayal. One protester says of the venom aimed at Yanukovych: “Can you imagine infuriating people to such despair that a banker and one of the most influential attorneys from Lviv came to Hrushevskogo Street to throw stones at police?”
By the time Yanukovych fled Kiev — more than three months after the rallies began — at least 125 people had been killed, 65 were missing and 1,890 had been injured. An overworked doctor said of the fallen: “You close someone’s eyes and you go to another.”
“I met so many fascinating characters,” said the director. “It was all part of this uplifting human spirit.... It’s a moral story for a younger generation. They can change their future.”
One of the young protesters, Dmytro Holubnychhy, 16, crouched in an old helmet and a blue jacket at the front lines, where a man lay in the street amid scattered rocks, snow and barbed wire. “I was just dragging a dead body,” he says, the camera as close as a mirror to his face. “I stepped in blood. You thought it would be easy … not me.”
Snipers take positions. Tin and wooden shields are raised. Someone hands Holubnychhy a phone. “Mom,” he says, “I want to tell you something … I love you.”
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