"Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom" is a thorough and detailed examination of the 93-day occupation of Maidan square in the country's capital, Kiev, a situation whose international, geopolitical repercussions are still being felt.
But if all those specifics make this sound like a film that doesn't see the forest for the trees, that's not the case at all. "Winter on Fire" never takes its eye off the story's underlying and very dramatic theme, and that would be nothing less than revolution.
As laid out by director Evgeny Afineevsky, aided by numerous interviews and no less than 28 credited cinematographers, "Winter on Fire" shows how what started out as a small, peaceful student protest morphed into a juggernaut that drove an entrenched president out of power and into exile.
The series of events did not please everyone, causing Russian President Vladimir Putin to feel marginalized in his sphere of influence and leading to his country's annexation of the Crimea, but that's not dealt with here. This is an examination of what societal change looks like moment to moment.
Despite all the hands involved in its creation, "Winter on Fire" is imbued with a single and quite heartening spirit: Idealistic though it sounds, committed individuals who believe in democracy can effect positive change. The costs will be staggering, and the film does not shortchange those, but it can be done.
To show how this happened from the ground up, and to ensure that the filmmakers would always be in the right place at the right time, "Winter on Fire" started with two video cameras and two digital cameras but hardly stopped there.
"We got footage from people's phones, from GoPro cameras, from TV crews, from wherever we could," director Afineevsky says in the press notes. "Without these volunteer cinematographers and the variety of technology available, it would have been impossible to document the movement."
"Winter on Fire" also features interviews with people the filmmakers met during those 93 days who look back on events after the fact. Instead of the usual academics, we hear from students, doctors, journalists, even a critic, all burning, even in retrospect, with the fervor of those days.
Before the protest proper begins, "Winter on Fire" provides a nifty title sequence bringing us up to speed on the maneuvers of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who promises the public that he will align the country with the European Union but who is secretly preparing to side with Putin's Russia.
(That recap, as well as other strong visuals that show the progress of the protest through Kiev's streets, were included courtesy of Oscar-winning editor Angus Wall ["The Social Network," "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"], who is one of this film's executive producers.)
The protest began with students on Nov. 21, 2013, and picked up steam when Yanukovych officially announced there would be no pact with Europe, when even ordinary citizens came to believe, as one man put it, that "they stole our children's future."
The situation became much more serious when the government unleashed the Berkut, its elite special forces units, against the protesters, and "Winter on Fire" features considerable footage of troops beating unarmed and unresisting protesters.
That violence backfired in a major way, upping the goal of the protests to preserving genuine democracy. As one interviewee says, "If today students can be beaten, tomorrow anyone can be beaten."
The government did not back down, but the protest continued to grow, with retired military men pitching in to help with self-defense. In an especially dramatic moment, the bells of Mikhailovsky Cathedral are rung for the first time since 1240 to signal a city in danger.
When Yanukovych suddenly leaves for exile in Russia, the satisfaction the protesters felt is palpable. "Our independence became real after 23 years," one participant says. "People really do have the power. It's not just a cliché."
'Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom'
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 44 'minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Fine Arts, Beverly Hills