From Peace to Bloodshed: 93 Days in Kiev (Film Review: “Winter on Fire”)

Stretching the bounds of documentary film making, this visceral detailing of the 3-month protest in Ukraine takes you not only behind the scenes but inside the action, both beautiful and bloody.

SnapShot Plot

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom is the Oscar nominated documentary detailing the 93 days of the student-led uprising in Kiev in late 2013 and early 2014 which began as a call to join the European community and later became an all-out rebellion against brutality.

Ukraine has always walked a thin line between East and West, for centuries. The country’s very name is translated as ‘borderland’, in fact. And although it claimed independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, its struggle to be seen as part of Europe has been a volatile one, both within the country and on the world stage.  Add to that the expected frictions between Christianity and Islam, not to mention Judaism, and it’s not hard to envision the entire region as a cultural powder keg. So what started off as a political movement born among the youth of Ukraine, whose desire it was for the country’s leaders to vote for inclusion in the European Union, dramatically metamorphosed into so much more.

In the opening of the film, we get a concise snapshot timeline of the East-West conflict through the lens of the country’s leadership, beginning with the ‘rigged’ election in 2004 of pro-Russian presidential candidate, Viktor Yanukovych (who the protesters in the film began referring to as the ‘Convict’). This led to the people’s Orange Revolution, which successfully overturned the election results. In 2010, Yanukovich returned to power as the newly elected president, this time promising to lead Ukraine into a new chapter of inclusion in the EU. However, it is revealed that he has been in secret negotiations with Vladimir Putin to instead align Ukraine once and for all with Mother Russia. In the fall of 2013, as the vote for a free trade agreement with the EU looms over the horizon, it’s becoming acutely clear that Yanukovich has, in essence, sold the people a house of cards. Hence the demonstrations begin –  peacefully  –  gaining momentum until more and more young people are joined by older citizens from all walks of life and professions, and also by the clergy of assorted religious groups standing side by side in unity, finally becoming a full-out movement that has taken to the streets of Kiev, centered around a main square called Maidan. It is at this critical juncture that the film takes off with an unprecedented access to the action and events swirling around the hand-held cameras.

For the next 93 days, with sickening certainty, we are both observers and virtual participants in the protest as it first unfurls in the innocent blush of youthful idealism only to become a bloody all-out war in the streets, playing out in a life or death David & Goliath confrontation between civilian protesters and armed police who are joined by mercenary thugs for hire. But for all the human loss, for all the beatings and bloodshed, what comes shining through again and again is the spirit of the Ukrainian people whose EU political agenda aside, were willing to risk their very lives to stand up to a government which at the very least trivialized their voices and at the very most, thought they could brutalize them into submission.



Parting Shot

I began this post describing Winter on Fire as stretching the bounds of documentary film making, for a reason. The piece indeed has a particular political point of view, which some will feel is too one-sided to make it an objective work of documentary journalism. Whole books and courses have been devoted to this conceptual conundrum. Whether you feel naturally or forcibly swayed by the film, it’s impossible to disrespect the effort, the motive or the achievement here.

Directed by Russian-born film maker, Evgeny Afineevsky, who (along with his partner and a small team of volunteers) literally embedded himself at ground zero in Maidan square from Day 1, Winter on Fire is a searing excoriation of human oppression at the hands of a brutal police state. In fact, when confronted with the criticism that his film is more Opinion piece than objective Journalism, he has said this: “It’s a story of human life and spirit that can unite people, and give a great lesson about bravery. Remember, this is not a story about Ukraine. It mirrors what America’s founding fathers stood for, many years ago. This movie can be an amazing lesson, and teach this millennial generation what the real price of their freedom is, that it cannot be taken for granted.” 

The parting shot takeaway for me was very much this sense of human universality which I feel is inherent in all great cinema vérité, whether its about gorillas in Africa, drug wars n Mexico, or a brilliant artist who succumbs to her own personal demons.  Afineevsky said it best, “There are so many messages in this movie, which I noticed myself, which kept me recording every day and night. There is a lot of injustice these days, for Syrian refugees, and with the Middle Eastern conflict. But in this square in Kiev, you had Jews and Muslims and Christians and everyone else, side by side together without any issues. So I hope people can learn about unity, and learn more and more about peace. United, we can change our future. At the end of the day young people came out knowing they had the power to change things. They believed in themselves, and what they wanted to achieve.”

Winter on Fire is presently streaming on Netflix.

Check out this candid interview with the director in Under the Radar Magazine.

For more on the critical conversation regarding the film, I urge you to read the article, “Five Things Netflix Documentary Doesn’t Tell You About Ukraine” published in Revista Opera by Pedro Marin (New Cold, October 24, 2015)

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