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How to Capture History, As Told By the Director of the Oscar-Nominated Documentary ‘Winter on Fire’

How to Capture History, As Told By the Director of the Oscar-Nominated Documentary 'Winter on Fire'


[Editor’s Note: “Winter on Fire” is one of the five nonfiction films this year that has been nominated for the Academy Award for best documentary. The film captures the 93-day protest in the Ukraine that began as a peaceful student demonstration, but grew into a sometimes violent civil rights movement that captivated the world and changed the country. The film doesn’t rely on the same news coverage we all saw on our televisions in late 2013 and early 2014, but rather footage that director Evgeny Afineevsky and his brave crew shot in the middle of the protests and while under the threat of sniper bullets, tear gas and police batons. We asked Afineevsky, who recently returned to Kyiv to screen his film for the new Ukrainian president, to reflect on the making of “Winter” and what he thinks the importance of his film has become.]

November 21, 2015 marked the second anniversary of when the Ukrainian youth gathered in the capital of Kyiv at Independence Square to make their voices heard. These were just simple people unhappy with the government’s decisions to not sign the association agreement with the European Union and the future prospects for the Ukrainian nation. It was a colorful festival of young voices dreaming of being a part of the larger European community and a movement against the decision of President Viktor Yanukovych.

I’ve been to the Ukraine many times since 2004, when the Orange Revolution happened, but when I arrived in November 2013, I could see something completely different was happening. Self-­organized citizens were protesting and not looking for politicians to lead their cause. Yet, when I started filming the demonstrations, I could not foresee that this was the beginning of a new chapter in Ukrainian history. A historical moment, now known as the Revolution of Dignity, that would change not only the history of the country, but the region and the world.

With events spontaneously unfolding, my team and I were capturing as much as we could with our cameras. Shooting from within the conflict zone, we were able to capture the remarkable mobilization of nearly a million citizens from across the country protesting the corrupt political regime that had suppressed the demands and freedom of its own people. Despite the bruises, concussions and injuries that we incurred during 93 days and nights, the determination and unity of the people around us gave me a sense of safety.

 There was a tremendous unity between people of all backgrounds, religions and faiths, which was the cornerstone that helped them collectively stand their ground and achieve their goal. This unity proved that people have the ability to respect each other and fight for a common cause side by side. Of course, at the beginning of the events, none of us were thinking that brutality and sacrifice would be so rampant. None of us were thinking of the thousands who would be injured and more than one hundred people who would be killed during the 93-day saga.
I was honored when President Petro Poroshenko, who was elected in May 2014, invited me back to Kyiv to share my movie with my local filmmaking crew, honorary foreign guests, the Ukrainian people and the families of the “Heavenly Hundred” — those who lost their loved ones in the protests. Looking back at these two years of hard work that started with the 93 days filled with emotions and adrenaline, I had never felt so lost and speechless as when the President called me to the stage and, on behalf of the entire Ukrainian nation, decorated me with the Cross of Ivan Mazepa. President Poroshenko noted that it was the first time he had bestowed this particular honor.

For me, this medal was like the highest score on an exam, it was like graduating and getting my diploma with honors, which was signed by the president of the country on behalf of its people. This was a national tribute to the hard labor we put toward documenting this history. It was a true recognition of the movie’s value as a historical document, which I created with my brave and unstoppable team through the freezing weather, tear gas, deadly smoke, police batons and real bullets.

For me — who was born in the former Soviet Union and left it in early 1991, just before Ukraine became independent — this moment in history became a great lesson in life’s values: Human dignity, respect among all religious beliefs, humanity and, above all, ­unity. The hope to make change brought millions of people to the central square of Kyiv in November 2013 and through these 93 days transformed the country into a new, but at the same time, a mature nation that realized the power of the people’s will.
People paid a high price, but they never gave up their beliefs and hopes, and ultimately won their battle! All together, all for one, and one for all. It was only the beginning of a newborn nation. The uprising of 2013­-2014 will be always a great reminder to any government that they have only been chosen to serve the people’s will, and that the people are the real power.

Since I finished my first rough cut last summer in Kyiv, and then came back to the U.S. to continue the post-production work, it was impossible not to notice how the country continued evolving and changing. As Katya (Ekaterina) Averchenko, one of the characters in “Winter on Fire,” said to me, “The country still struggles against what was inherited from the old system, and many of the previous problems are still being addressed, like corruption and lack of efficient governance. But it is the memory of the Maidan movement and these 93 historic days, which are also preserved in the movie, that will continue to inspire further changes.”

Despite the hardships and current military situation, people are much more confident in what they have been able to achieve together through the uprising and will never allow a rollback to cronyism and dictatorship. One of the family members of the “Heavenly Hundred” came to me at the screening in Kyiv, wiping his tears, and said: “This movie is a cinematic memorial for our kids and will always serve in perpetuity as a reminder to the Ukrainian and other elite about the power of the people. Thank you so much for being with them and documenting the real moment of the real history.”
The Ukrainian people are very proud of what they have accomplished and they want to share their story with the world, hoping that more lives can be changed for the better. To me as an American citizen, this Revolution of Dignity mirrors what the founding fathers of the United States of America fought for in order to establish our free and democratic society. This means that “Winter on Fire” has an important historical value, not only for the Ukrainian and European world, but also for our American society to re-learn the real price of freedom and democracy.

Every president, every leader and every lawmaker should have this movie on his desk and watch it as a reminder of who he serves and that the people who gave their trust to him are the real power.

 “Winter of Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” is a Netflix Original and available to be streamed here.

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