A new Netflix documentary charts the Ukraine’s violent path to self-determination.
Still from Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.
“This is the Ukrainian Revolution,” says a fresh-faced teenage boy on Day 92 of the Maidan Uprising. “It’s fun,” he adds. “I was just dragging a dead body. I stepped in blood. You can’t surprise me with anything.”
This brief encounter opens Russian-born filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky’s visceral chronicle, Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, which won the Toronto International Film Festival’s People’s Choice Documentary Award and premiered October 9 on Netflix. During these early moments in the film, it’s difficult to fathom what’s happening: the dizzying images of dead bodies, the scrambling of amateur militia, and the boy’s blasé attitude towards the carnage that surrounds him.
But near the end of the documentary, we return to the scene and it becomes much more lucid. Rather than inured from the violence, the young man looks genuinely worried. Over the rat-tat-tat of gunfire and blood-curdling screams in the background, he’s trying to talk to his mother on a cellphone. “Mom, I want to tell you something,” he says. “I love you.“
In between these bookending scenes, Winter on Fire provides a day-to-day account of the brutal protests that began on November 21, 2013 when then President Viktor Yanukovych suspended the signing of an agreement with the European Union. Angered by what many saw as a concession to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the citizenry took to Kiev’s central Maidan Nezalezhnosti Square and—as Egyptian protestors did in Cairo’s Tahrir Square just two years earlier—grew in numbers and refused to leave until the people’s demands were met.
But their struggle, as Winter on Fire powerfully demonstrates, was hard-won and extremely violent. By Day 10 of the protests, military police known as the “Berkut” are shown brutally cracking down on protestors, using truncheons to batter their heads and bodies. All the while, Afineevsky and his crew’s handheld cameras are front and center, capturing every shocking sight: the smashed eyes of the wounded; the pools of blood gathering under a fallen protestor; the relentlessness with which the government forces wield their weapons.
Along the way, there are small triumphs. On Dec. 13, 2013, for example, the film recounts an epic scene in which thousands of protestors joined hands to overwhelm and ultimately stave off another military onslaught. But as the demonstrations wear on into their second month, the tensions escalate and Kiev begins to resemble an all-out war zone: batons give way to live ammunition; protestors employ Molotov cocktails; and entire buildings go up in flames.
“I was in the same danger as everybody else,” admits Afineevsky, “and the crew was in even more danger.” Despite the fear and panic felt along the frontlines, the filmmaker says there was little time to worry. “When you see someone dying next to you, yes, you have a moment of fear, “ he says, “but you don’t have the time to digest it because you need to move on.”
Winter on Fire is the second major film to document Ukraine’s civil uprising. The first, Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan, which was shown at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a nonfiction epic filmed in stunningly beautiful long takes. With densely layered sound design and only a few intertitles for commentary, Maidan endowed the protest with a galvanizing aesthetic power. Winter on Fire, on the other hand, is far more accessible, focusing on individual faces rather than the pulse of a broader political movement.
Afineevsky also distinguishes his film from the seminal Egyptian uprising documentary The Square (another Netflix premiere). “The Square was much more political,” says the filmmaker. “My project is the human story behind the headlines.” He also emphasizes the wide cross-section of people who took part in Ukraine’s movement. “There was a unity of young and old, of different religions, nationalities and social classes. And they didn’t need to be born in the country to be patriots,” adds Afineevsky, citing such fallen demonstrators as an Armenian and a Belarusian.
Afineevsky’s film is also in the moment, and of the moment—a you-are-there sense of urgency fills every frame. It is history captured on the fly. But this also makes Winter on Fire appear less than current. Though end credits state that a pro-Russian backlash has now escalated into an all-out war in Eastern Ukraine and over 6,000 people have been killed in the ongoing conflict, there is a little contextual information about what is happening now in Ukraine.
But for Afineevsky, the film remains just as relevant today, and will remain relevant in the future. “It’s a great reminder to every government in Ukraine and every government in the world that people together can achieve much more,” he says. “This is the beautiful thing: At the end of the day, people are the real power.”