REVIEW: Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom [2015]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: NR | Runtime: 102 minutes | Release Date: October 9th, 2015 (USA)
Studio: Netflix
Director(s): Evgeny Afineevsky

“I came here to defend my future, the future of my children, compatriots and country”

After the success of The Square, there really wasn’t a better place than Netflix for Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom to flourish. A TIFF People’s Choice Award and Oscar nomination later and we see that to be true. Evgeny Afineevsky‘s documentary is very similar to that 2013 film because it is very much a mirror of those events. As a president begins a political takeover into dictatorship, the people of Ukraine stand up in protest at Kiev’s Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti). It’s there that the peace demonstration is met with military force so it’s 93-day duration ends up mired in blood and death before its resolution. And thanks to twenty-first century technology, we’re able to bear witness and realize the price paid for freedom.

Interspersed with footage on the ground during the good times and bad are interviews in the aftermath by those who fought. Afineevsky nicely places shots of his interviewees during the revolution before or after the present-day retelling to ensure we realize these people aren’t scholars who watched from afar and made observations through months of study. These architects, singers, doctors, and lawyers know what they’re saying because they experienced it. They were beaten with iron billysticks, ambushed by tear gas, and forced to watch as friends perished by their side. They were the ones who took a stand knowing that failure today most likely meant failure forever. If President Viktor Yanukovych didn’t relinquish his grip on the country now it would only grow tighter and permanent.

The whole ordeal’s more intriguing through the nation’s history in the lead-up to this 2014 Revolution. Told in brief as an event timeline during the opening credits—after already witnessing a glimpse of the full carnage before rewinding to Day One—we learn that Yanukovych had won his seat before. This ex-convict known to be in Russia’s back pocket found victory through corruption, however, and the people protested to overthrow him and re-stage fair elections. The Orange Revolution proved a success and the people truly believed they were free as a result. Unfortunately, Yanukovych was again voted in a decade later with new promises of joining the EU. Leading the people along, he waited until the last possible second before pulling the rug and shaking Vladimir Putin’s hand.

What this means is that the people fighting in 2014 are the children of those in 2004. They were raised under European ideals with real futures in front of them. It wasn’t necessarily their fault that Yanukovych was re-elected, but they took it upon themselves to make sure he didn’t stay. Not only this, we soon learn that they refused to bow down to the opposition political party supposedly working with their best interests in mind too. The film isn’t saying they weren’t, but politicians can only go so far. Vitali Klitschko was fighting to the best of his abilities, but it doesn’t mean Yanukovych’s regime wasn’t lying. Ukraine couldn’t survive more political stalling and the government corroborated this realization when they began remorselessly killing its opposition.

This escalation isn’t swift, but it is harsh. At first Yanukovych deals with the protest quietly: he sends his police and the Berkut to watch. Days go by and nothing changes so suddenly the Berkut start to advance with brutal force. More time elapses and batons turn to rubber bullets, rubber into lead. When I heard an interviewee admit that it seemed the police themselves were surprised at how much damage they were causing with their clubs, I thought maybe a tide would turn and empathy and compassion would reign. I was wrong. The authorities only grew worse until they were murdering and kidnapping alongside ex-con mercenaries (Titushky) released from prison to wreak havoc with impunity. Tears and screams turned into blood and bodies as fires burned.

Afineevsky censors nothing. Sometimes he warns us with interviewees explaining how an innocent friend died inches away from them while trying to help the wounded before showing the footage that captured the act. We watch as protestors drop to the ground and cover their heads in a sort of surrender when Berkut officers run past to kick them and bash them before moving on to the next prone victim helpless to do anything but bear it. And it’s not like these people get beat and left either. No, waves and waves of Berkut follow until you have to believe the fifth, sixth, and beyond are merely hitting an unconscious pound of flesh unable to even think about harming them back. In effect, Yanukovych’s own aggression mobilized his enemies.

Suddenly a sixteen-year old is telling his mother he loves her over the phone while bullets whizz by and grenades erupt. Twelve-year old Roma Saveliyev is met to speak about what he remembers and how he broke blockades to rejoin the resistance despite everyone telling him he was too young. We see him on the frontlines with helmet on head and makeshift flak jacket covering chest and back. Ex-military enter Maidan so they may train the protesters how to protect themselves and fight back. And one man asks us to imagine the utter despair necessary to make for a prominent lawyer from Iluv travel to Kiev so he may throw rocks at the police. In all honesty, I cannot fathom it no matter how hard I try.

It’s impossible not to be emboldened by the effort of regular people who can no longer take the abuse of power lording over them. But it’s also impossible to think about fight myself considering how long it’s been since our own revolution and civil war. It’s easy to say I’d have gone to Maidan had I been born in the Ukraine, but I really don’t know. Those circumstances—being so close to European free world designation only to watch your president reverse his stance and move towards oppression—definitely hold sway, though. At a certain point you can no longer sit back and merely watch. You must join the men, women, children, and elderly pounding their crutches in vehement passion. This is the human spirit: freedom above survival.

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