After winning the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival for his documentary “Winter On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom,” director Evgeny Afineevsky helped kick off IFC Center’s Stranger than Fiction documentary series with a screening of the film in New York City on Wednesday night. The film provides a visceral, in-depth look at the bloody Ukrainian uprising in Kiev’s Maiden Square in the winter of 2013-14, which resulted in the removal of Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych. The Russian-born director joined the audience for a Q&A after the film’s screening. Check out some of the highlights from the event below.
What drove Afineevsky to go the Ukraine and film this story
“I got a call from…the producer of the film, actually. I did previous documentaries there, and we had just finished one,” the director said. “Then we left and he called me from the Ukraine and said, ‘Hey, you need to come down, something is happening here. Come for a couple of weeks, shoot it.’ This is how it is done — two weeks that literally became six months. When we came, nobody was even thinking that this was how it was going to be happening.”
“It was an amazing festival of young people. It was a youth movement that started really peacefully and happy,” he continued. “People wanted to bring their message, they wanted to be heard, and this is what it was at the beginning. Nobody was expecting that it would be developing into such events. Then, unfortunately things happened. Nobody was expecting, four o’clock in the morning, getting beaten by police, people getting kidnapped, and then bullets flying over the shoulders and over our heads. It was so spontaneous, so we realized that history is not just happening, it was there, so we were there.”
How the crew was organized
“As soon as people heard that I was doing this fascinating documentary, and heard that I was coming from different parts of the globe — from Los Angeles, from Hollywood — they all wanted to share their stories. As much as the movements were growing, people were at every point of the movement, and they were there capturing — using home cameras, using cell phones, a lot of different equipment. But they all wanted to share their stories, and I became an outlet,” Afineevsky said. “They were voluntarily coming and voluntarily giving their footage on what they shot, and then it became a big crew and a big family in Maiden square, that everyday they were bringing more and more stuff.”
The dangers of filming
“Nobody was killed from my crew. Injuries, yes. From medium to big injuries where people were hospitalized, and haven’t been able to be with us for a long period. Now, all of them are alive, all of them are safe, all of them are good right now. And for me it is a real tribute to the filmmaking because we were on the ground. As you can see, nobody cared about the expensive equipment, everyone cared about how to capture the moment, how to document the moment,” Afineevsky said.
How the interviewees were chosen
“Some of the interviews were done at the Maiden, on the fly. You see them…you can see in the movie it was during the protest. One of my guys filmed him, and it just happened spontaneously. We have another couple of interviews that we did on the fly in the battles because we wanted to get this feeling of why people were here, why people are standing here particularly under the bullets and what they want to achieve. So some of these moments were done spontaneously, during the events. Then when the events achieved their goal in February, I started to interview people I met during the movement,” Afineevsky said.
“I went back to them, we went back to Maiden after February…At that point we already had a beginning, middle, and end of the story. Then I interviewed them all, I was the one interviewing them. I tried to find characters whose stories are relatable. Relatable to us, relatable to the people across the globe. For example, this amazing 12-year-old kid that you saw. You saw a fascinating image of the child who ran from his home, and who in front of your eyes was having his school of life. And you were observing these three months of his maturity, amazing maturity. And the guy right now, he’s a real fighter, he’s fighting right now in a war zone in the Ukraine. And it is amazing how these characters can be role models and at the same time these characters can be relatable to the young generation of our days, and the older characters can be relatable to the older generation of our days.”
Afineevsky shares what captivated him about this story
“What was fascinating for me in my story that I am trying to bring through the movie, is the amazing unity of different social lives, different mentalities, different social groups, all the faces and religions were together and they achieved their goals. This is something that captivated me and I am proud that I have been able to capture and document it, this piece of history that happened. What’s happening right now is another chapter in the history of the Ukraine fighting for freedom,” Afineevsky said.
“I was there at that moment and I was able to capture something that happened on the ground, something that for me I never saw anywhere in the world,” Afineevsky said. “In any place in the world we can’t see that religion is with the people because usually religion is something that is an instrument of the government which helps the government to control people, here this was the opposite. A lot of elements that traditionally we see in different movements across the globe didn’t happen here, something unusual and special happened here that struck me which is why I brought this particular fascinating story onto the screen.”
Why the people of Ukraine are excited to see this film
“Ukrainian people are really looking forward to this movie, they are all excited,” Afineevsky said. “It is a very important moment in history to show that people are the power, the people are the power not the government.”
“Government is representative of the people, they’re chosen by people. So for them it is important to remind their government and everyone else that they can’t abuse the power like it has happened in the past. For them it is a very important movie, they’re all waiting for this movie and actually I have an agreement with Channel 5 since Netflix is still not there. Netflix is in fifty countries and it opens on October 9 in all these fifty countries,” Afineevsky said. “By the end of 2016 they are planning to be global, but since they’re still not there we have an agreement with Channel 5, one of the major channels, to have the movie screen on Channel 5 sometime in the spring.”
For more information on future IFC’s Stranger than Fiction documentaries visit their website. “Winter On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom” will begin streaming on Netflix on October 9.