In “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom,” director and longtime producer Evengy Afineevsky chronicles the 93 days of protest in Ukraine’s Maidan Square during which diverse crowds of activists stood up against president Viktor Yanukovych’s alliance to Russia in lieu of firmer trade deals with Europe. While their actions culminated with Yanukovych’s resignation, it came at great cost: violent showdowns with police, countless injuries, and a resilient attitude despite the dangers of an aggressive government eager to silence them. Relying on a massive team of cinematographers — there are 28 credited — Afineevsky constructed a bracing, up-close portrait of the revolution from its humble beginnings to the thousands of protestors that eventually crowded the square.
After showing the film at several fall festivals, the Los Angeles-based Afineevsky recently screened the movie at the Ukranian embassy in Washington, D.C. in advance of Netflix’s upcoming release. “People are responding to the movie with compassion,” Afineevsky said in a phone conversation with Indiewire. “It’s interesting to see how people react to something behind the headlines. The people from Congress who saw it said everyone in the Capital should see it. They see a great story there.”
Afineevsky shared his tips from the field on how best to capture a revolution in progress. “Winter on Fire” is available to stream on Netflix today and also screening theatrically in New York and Los Angeles.
“Nobody was paying attention because there were so many movements throughout the world,” Afineevsky said. “They weren’t trying to deeply investigate into the region.” After the 93-day protest, “the entire world was involved in this conflict, because they wanted to resolve it.” When that happened, “Winter on Fire” was ready. “Now, an international audience can see the answers to many questions about the region,” Afineevsky said, adding that the film speaks to different struggles around the globe. “The movie points to unity — that united people can achieve their goal against political regimes,” he said.
Focus on the human angle.
“My passion is filmmaking and documenting history,” Afineevsky said. “I aimed to deliver it to millions of people not familiar with the subject. Now they can study it with these human stories, and they can relate to them. The unity that I saw there — which I also saw in the square — it was all nationalities together, all social groups together.”
Make sure the cameras never stop rolling.
“As a filmmaker doing movies before, I knew that the more coverage you have, the more ability you have to express yourself in a feature,” Afineevsky said. “I realized that as much as the movement was growing, I needed to have much broad coverage to tell everything in depth.” Initially, he hired two cinematographers to shoot during the day. “Nobody was expecting that kids would be beaten at four o’clock in the morning,” referencing showdowns between protestors and police forces.
“We realized the movement was growing and I needed to have more eyes and hands on the movement at every moment to capture things in every corner.” His production installed a surveillance camera above Maidan to guarantee they wouldn’t miss anything. Then he engaged with other filmmakers capturing footage on the scene. “As soon as they got the information that i was trying to do a broader history of the protest, they decided to share the footage with us,” he said. “They wanted to be a part of this big documentary. That was just word of mouth.”
Be careful how you communicate.
When dealing with a touchy government and militant forces, it’s important to choose your mode of communication with a fair degree of caution. “Facebook is public,” Afineevsky cautioned. “It was for me an additional danger to post there. I was in the middle of the movement and people were being kidnapped. I didn’t want to put myself in danger as this foreign filmmaker.”
When he arrived in Ukraine, Afineevsky’s Blackberry was hacked. “We were very careful with cell phones because they’re traceable,” he said. From that point forward, he kept his phone wrapped in foil and removed the battery.
Much of the coordination took place on-site. “Being inside the movement gave me the opportunity to talk to the people,” he said. “My producing background helped me understand how to organize people. With the camera in my hand, I could document history.”
Explore different formats to suit the changing conditions.
Afineevsky started out with using two Canon HD cameras, but ended up relying on GoPro cameras due to their efficiency in the chaotic, crowded environment. He also used some drone cameras and cell phones. “It was anything that was handy at the moment,” he said.
Find the right partners.
Afineevsky worked with SPN Production and UKRSTREAM.TV to juggle his extensive footage. The latter company held an office just inside the square, so the filmmaker could easy upload footage for backup on a daily basis.
While on the square, the filmmaker wore a press credential just like broadcast news journalists at the scene. But wound up with 100,000 hours and 15 terabytes of footage due to nearly 30 cinematographers who chipped in. “Some captured little bits, others contributed a lot,” he said. “Each was an important part of it.”
Ultimately, Afineevsky produced the project with some of his own money along with fellow producer Den Tolmor. Initially, he expected to shoot the protests for two weeks and then head back to Los Angeles for the editing process. Instead, he wound up sticking around, and the budget ballooned to roughly $440,000. “None of us predicted that budget,” he said. Two of his executive producers, Lati Grobman and Christa Campbell, showed the movie to Passion Pictures executive John Battsek, who brought the project to Netflix’s attention. Battsek also brought the movie to veteran editor Angus Wall (whose credits include Errol Morris’ “Tabloid” and several David Fincher films). Wall offered pointers on the editing and signed on as another executive producer.
“Netflix’s plan is to expose this movie to a broad audience,” Afineevsky said.
Know how to defend your project.
Afineevsky said governmental authorities followed him when he arrived in Ukraine and peppered him questions about his project. He was reserved about his intentions but insisted that he never considered stopping the production. “Listen, Madian was fighting for freedom,” he said, adding that his own multicultural background — he was born in Russia, raised in Israel and now holds American citizenship — boosted his confidence. “I’m grateful to be an American who has freedom of speech,” he said. “Nobody can tell me not to do something. I don’t give a fuck what they think.” All that being said, he admitted, “I was cautious with my answers.”