At the beginning of “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom,” we see the streets of Kiev, Ukraine filled with peaceful demonstrations against the Ukrainian government. The people of the Ukraine want to be a part of Europe and making that official means signing an association agreement with the European Union. But by November of 2013, preparations to sign the agreement were suspended, prompting protests. Three months later, thanks to the continued use of violent methods to disperse of the massive gatherings, the city of Kiev looked like a total war zone. Evgeny Afineevsky’s documentary forces you to feel this transformation, one harrowing step after another. ‘Winter on Fire’ is often difficult to watch, but if you can make it to the end, it’ll be hard not to feel emotionally overwhelmed. A good documentary will shed light on an event you may have otherwise not known much about, a great documentary will make you feel it too. Watching these Ukrainian citizens stand together and find ways to fight back against such brutality — it’s really inspiring stuff.
First off, the amount of footage Afineevsky was able to obtain from on the ground is just staggering. While the documentary makes good use of an animated map, helping you understand where these protests take place, nearly all of the interviews and the action happens right on the streets of Kiev. You watch it all unfold in front of you, right as it’s happening. And it’s a twofold effect: you witness the bravery of these protesters trying to fight back against the riot police, while also being reminded that the camera operators are in the middle of the action too.
Most of the interviews were done after the violence had subsided, some when the protests were still happening. From that, you get a great sense of who exactly is behind the fight against the Ukrainian government. Whether it’s students from nearby universities, priests of almost every denomination, a 12-year-old boy with nerves of steel, Ukrainian journalists, former and current members of the Ukrainian military, or older citizens who grew up when the Ukraine was under control by the Soviets — they all came together for the same reasons and they continually demonstrate great pride in where they come from. And with the protests ultimately leading to the deaths of hundreds of citizens, it just makes their continued stand against the Ukrainian government all the more powerful.
As a result of the on-the-ground footage, we bear witness to several instances of the Ukraine’s riot police (the Berkut) ganging up on unarmed citizens and beating them senseless. Repeatedly, the Berkut are found beating random protesters excessively about the head and body with the Ukrainian people having no way of defending themselves — at least at first. The Ukrainian government thought they could scare these protesters away by using such barbaric tactics, but if anything, it just made them stronger and more united. That’s until the unthinkable occurred: when the police began using live ammunition. By then though, as one protester put it quite literally: they had reached the point of no return. For them, it’s now or never. They either receive their freedom from oppression now, or they never will.
If you’re unaware of the end result before watching the documentary, each subsequent event depicted will lead you to believe that no positive resolution will ever come. Over the course of 100 minutes, you are watching a war erupt right in front your eyes and the situation gets way, way worse before it gets better. Keeping the focus exclusively on the ground was largely a smart choice by the filmmakers, but one can’t help but wish a little more light was shed on members of the Ukrainian government. What did they know? What didn’t they know? How could they let such awful violence linger on for so long? There must be a little bit more to this story than what we see because otherwise, it’s impossible to watch this documentary and not be appalled by these events as they unfold. Having even a little sense of what was going on behind the scenes, politically, would’ve helped to better understand why such awful, violent, and deadly tactics were being used to silence these protesters.
Still, ‘Winter on Fire’ ultimately works because it successfully captures just how powerful these movements can be. Like with 2013’s “The Square,” which centered on the ongoing crisis happening in Egypt, to watch ‘Winter on Fire’ is to watch a revolution in progress. This is a documentary that reminds you of the resiliency of the human spirit. The resourcefulness that can take place when you have nowhere else to run. This is best exemplified by a particularly bleak moment when the Berkut had snipers on rooftops with riot police in prime position to take out civilians one by one. Instead of laying down, the protesters actually managed to find a way to fight back by setting tires on fire, forcing the police above to breathe in the smoke. It’s moments like that — even in the middle of such horrific events — where you’re reminded just how strong a united front can be. Those moments are what makes ‘Winter on Fire’ such essential viewing. [A-]