As the credits rolled up on Netflix’s Oscar-nominated documentary Winter On Fire by Evgeny Afineevsky, my emotions were so far out in front of my mind. I actually felt like I was in shock. What had I just witnessed? How could something like this happen today?
The film capture an incredible 93 day journey of Ukraine’s revolution that occurred in the winter of 2013/2014. As their president Viktor Yanukovich rejected the offer to join the European Union and instead welcomed a ‘partnership’ with Russia. For the people of Ukraine, it was time to go to the streets. The call for peaceful revolution started on all places – Facebook.
As thousands of people converged on Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), the protest feels more like a music festival. This would quickly change as president Viktor Yanukovych orders his special police – the Berkut – to move the protestors away.
The film captures the brutality of the Berkut in harsh, unflinchingly graphic images. Seeing riot-geared policeman beat unarmed people in the middle of streets – looks like it was filmed right off the set of The Hunger Games. But it isn’t. It’s real. It isn’t staged. It isn’t acting.
And it keeps going. Week after week, month after month – the confrontations between the Berkut and the people become more and more violent, ultimately ending with snipers picking off unarmed protestors one by one, even the Red Cross and clergy become targets.
It is horrifying. It is sickening.
That Afineevsky was able to take footage from 25 different journalists and videographers over this time period and make a cohesive story line out of the mess is impressive. He combines actual footage as well as retrospective interviews with the protestors.
But the film definitely finds itself on the side of complete propaganda as opposed to pure documentary. The complicated cultural dynamic of the Ukraine is never addressed. Yes, we see Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish priests all talking about freedom in the film but the fractured, distinct people groups that compromise the Ukraine is never defined. The desperateness of their economy is never addressed which in all reality provided the setting for a man like Viktor Yanukovich to get elected TWICE. The film never stops to ask how could such a corrupt official be allowed back in the county and run for president after he rigged an election? How could he get elected again? How could he basically run the country with no opposition from Parliament afterwards?
Were the elections rigged again? How could a parliament be so dysfunctional and divided that a monster like Yanukovich could do what he did? Where was the army, national guard, other police forces at during the 93 day confrontation? Why were the protestors so divided and unorganized? Why were they fighting against each other – even till the last few days of the drama?
None of these questions are ever explored. The complicated nuance of the role of foreign governments aren’t either. So while Afineevsky’s images and angles are dramatic and moving, they are by no means the complete picture. And he leaves way to many questions unanswered.
Despite this obvious lack of perspective of the film, it is moving. And it is haunting in that humanity continues to prove that we are this volatile mix of depravity and altruism. As the snipers are picking off unarmed civilians, there are those running into the gunfire to save them. What ultimately determines where one person lands? It’s a picture that we have wrestled with since the beginning.
The film ends much to neatly for my liking. There are blurbs and voiceovers telling of how Yanukovich fled the country to seek asylum in Russia. The parallels to the Iran Hostage saga are erie at this point. We get the final number of dead and wounded as well as the ongoing annexation of parts of the Ukraine to Russia.
So many questions left unanswered but still very much worthy of a watch.