The Feel-Good Revolution of ‘Winter on Fire’
New documentary manufactures optimism out of darkness
At first, it’s all black. “Do something,” someone says. “Do something for the revolution.”
“I’m filming,” another voice says in response. The lights come up and we’re crouched up against a wall, staring at a young man with olive skin. It’s cold and the kid’s every breath pumps clouds into the air.
The world behind him is in disarray — piles of what look like garbage layer the ground in front of a stark apartment building. Graffiti drips from concrete dividers. The kid wears a shiny green, new-looking helmet and a scarf bearing the face of Stepan Bandera. His topcoat is bright blue and yellow — the color of his flag.
“This is the Ukrainian Revolution,” he says with a big smile on his face. “It’s fun.” Gunfire fills the air. Men with shields stand and attempt to cross the street while others try to warn them off. “They’re shooting over there,” one shouts.
“I was just dragging a dead boy,” the kid says over the sounds of rifle fire. “I stepped in blood. You can’t surprise me with anything.” Much later, we’ll learn he’s 16 years old. Right now, he’s the face of a movement — one that ousted a crony, elected a chocolatier and captivated the world.
This is Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom, a new documentary on Netflix about 93 days that changed Eastern Europe.
Evgeny Afineevsky — a Russian born, Israeli-raised and now American filmmaker — directed, produced and filmed Winter On Fire. Though it’s important to note he didn’t film all of it. The credits list close to 30 cinematographers, people who stood, fought and filmed in Maidan alongside Afineevsky.
The movie tells an incredible story. To be sure, it’s propaganda, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. I’m simply judging it on those terms. A good story can elect a politician, sell a war or start a revolution. The story of Winter on Fire sells the Ukrainian Revolution to the rest of the world and it does a damn good job of it.
From the end of November 2013 to the end of February 2014, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians filled Maidan square in Kiev. To be brief, then-president Viktor Yanukovych promised to move Ukraine’s economy closer to Europe and instead cozied up to Russia. The lies and supplications to Moscow angered people in Ukraine.
The protesters would not disperse and Yanukovych unleashed the Berkut, a kind of special forces police, and the people fought back. The opening narration that tries to explain all this feels rushed, but Afineevsky wants to tell the story of a revolution, not the politics behind it.
The film flits between footage from the 93 days of protests, one-on-one interviews with the survivors and animated maps that help the audience keep track of the moving protest.
It all seemed to happen so quickly. At first, the people were simply upset their president promised one thing only to do another. According to the film, no one who showed up in the early days to protest Yanukovych thought they’d soon watch their government crumble … or that people would die.
“I closed my laptop,” one man says. “The next time I opened it was a month and a half later.”
The beginning of the protest seems idyllic. Young couples dance to music, people hold hands and play games. It reminded me of America’s Occupy Wall Street movement — kids showing up to protest without any clear direction.
But then Yanukovych and his Berkut overreacted, focusing the people’s dissatisfaction. It got ugly. The bulk of the film’s 90-minute run focuses on images of incredible violence. Jack-booted thugs made faceless by their helmets move through crowds, beating old men and children with steel rods.
The camera closes in on the face of an unmasked Berkut trooper. He’s young and looks nervous. Throughout the film, the protesters appeal to their oppressors, asking them to lay down their arms. A few of them look as if they might.
Heads crack in the night. Blood and brains pour onto the concrete. Dashcam footage shows the Berkut stopping cars on the highway, smashing in windows and dragging people into the street.
The secret police move forward in a phalanx formation, shields to the side and above, toward waiting gangs of protesters hurling Molotov cocktails.
Stun grenades wrapped in nuts and bolts explode, shredding the bodies of protesters. The Berkut takes the high ground near the October palace and sets fire to the protesters’ makeshift encampments. The Ukrainians respond by hurling tires into the fire, engorging the flames and sending virulent smoke into the eyes of the thugs.
Men and women limp through darkened streets, bleeding on the concrete while volunteer medics wrap their wounds. “When I asked them why,” one bleeding young man says while a medic tends to his gushing head. “They answered, ‘Be grateful you’re not being arrested.’”
These are a but a few scenes from the revolution, and all this before the Berkut snipers come out to play.
Winter on Fire falters when it attempts to provide the greater context for Euromaidan. We see that the conflict heats up when the Ukrainian parliament pushes through draconian laws banning activities such as wearing helmets and gatherings of more than five cars.
“Instead of conducting negotiations, the government chose to unleash a bacchanalia of dictatorship,” one of the protesters says. But moments like these are brief in the film, as are discussions of Yanukovych’s poor leadership.
To be clear, the former Putin-backed Ukrainian president is a bad guy, but Winter on Fire does precious little to explain why. Which is disappointing because there is no shortage of negative evidence about the embezzling, romance novel writing, convict Yanukovych.
The film also glosses over problems with the opposition leadership. Euromaidan’s de facto leaders in the opposition party appear ineffectual and weak compared to Euromaidan itself. At one point, a protester complains about votes in parliament and moments later we see an opposition leader calling for a vote.
Then, during a street protest, someone sprays the same leader with a fire extinguisher, robbing him of dignity and authority.
No wonder, toward the end of the film, when the opposition leader explains to an angry crowd that he’s negotiated a deal with Yanukovych for fresh elections in a year’s time, the people demand the president’s resignation instead. Coffins with the bodies of those murdered by the Berkut surf the crowd.
“For 23 years we only had our independence on paper,” a woman says. “But now, so many people have sacrificed their lives that it has become real.”
Catch Winter on Fire streaming on Netflix.