The subtitle of Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom indicates the stance taken by Evgeny Afineevsky’s 2015 documentary on the astonishing events in Kiev of November 2013 to February 2014. He traces the escalation from the initial suspension by President Viktor Yanukovych of discussions prior to signing an association agreement with the European Union, prompting peaceful protests and the occupation of the city’s Maïdan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square; the passing of draconian legislation to counter the protests and the murderous assaults by the security forces as the confrontations grew uglier; and finally Yanukovych’s undignified flight to sanctuary in Russia leading to the formation of a new government. Yanukovych made a wise decision to leave because he deserves to appear at The Hague for presiding over this barbarism.
Recorded by 28 camera operators using a variety of equipment, Winter on Fire covers events in the square and other key locations, intercut with interviews by activists given during and after the occupation, and with occasional very brief footage of the wider domestic and international political context. The focus is the appalling violence inflicted on the demonstrators, making it sometimes hard to watch as the government’s militarised police wield batons and boots on their helpless victims, and later take to shooting them first with plastic bullets then with live ammunition.
In the face of this brutality the square’s occupiers’ sense of purpose remains firm as they face the fascistically-dressed paramilitaries and their hired thug auxiliaries with whatever makeshift weapons are at hand, but most of all with their comradeship and determination to win a better future. The scenes of heroism and sacrifice cannot leave the viewer unmoved; the visuals were dramatic enough on their own without the need for the intrusive and unnecessarily manipulative dramatic music which was overlaid at times. The demonstrators display confidence in forming their own ad hoc democratic institutions, sidelining the ineffectual opposition politicians – including Vitali Klitschko – who sought to co-opt the desperate struggle for their own electoral purposes (though Klitschko’s rebuff did not prevent him later becoming mayor of the city). The film certainly acts as a monument to the people’s unity and indomitable will in the face of seemingly overwhelming force. However, it also leaves the sense that it is covering familiar territory.
I was fortunate to attend a screening at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge with Afineevsky present for a question and answer session which proved to be as illuminating as what we had just seen. He rather acted as if Winter on Fire is groundbreaking in capturing Euromaidan as it unfolded, whereas the 93-day protest has been the subject of a number of films already, some of which have been shown in the annual Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film. Winter on Fire is a worthy if flawed addition to the canon, but coming after others on the same subject it feels as if the issues have moved on; in fact the 2015 Cambridge festival showed Serhii Andrushko’s 2014 Post Maidan, which explores the anticlimactic aftermath of the giddy heights of the Maidan occupation. Perhaps the audience member who asked Afineevsky about the tension between the events depicted in his film, which exhibited such a sense of unity, and the fracturing of the nation which followed (a consequence only briefly touched in in the closing seconds) had this datedness in mind.
Afineevsky has captured some of the variety of those who took part, young and old and from various walks of life, including the significant role of religious leaders, though not those with political affiliations on the far left and right who were directly involved but have been airbrushed here. When asked about dissenting voices, notably those who supported Yanukovych, he tried to give the impression that the Ukrainian population was overwhelmingly hostile to the President’s actions in distancing the country from closer ties with the EU. The statistics do not bear that out, as there was widespread support for the competing options of forging ties with Russia or with both Russia and the EU. To suggest that the situation was unambiguously ‘The People versus Viktor Yanukovych’ is frankly dishonest. Kiev is not Ukraine.
As an audience member pointed out, even with a flawed electoral process Yanukovych was popular enough to be elected. The resident in Maidan is Everywhere (2015) complaining about protesters blocking cars is a rare individual in any of the Maidan films in not being fully supportive of the movement against Yanukovych. It is easy to forget, in marvelling at the numbers involved in the square, how many weren’t there. In terms of an agenda, it was curious that Afineevsky was accompanied at the Cambridge screening by someone from the Ukrainian embassy, which raises issues about his film’s independence (footage shot from the Berkut police side is included, which possibly came from government sources rather than Afineevsky’s camera operators). There may be a motive here over and above celebrating the bravery of the Maidan occupiers at a time when the present Ukrainian government in turn is mired in controversy, with a pressing need to stress national unity.
Afineevsky was evasive in many of his responses to question after the Cambridge screening, though to be fair he pointed out he is a filmmaker, not a politician (he has also said in interviews that he is not a journalist, though how one can be a good documentarist without being a journalist at the same time is unclear). Judging it on its own merits, Winter on Fire is highly polished, as one would expect with Netflix finance involved, and consequently it has received wider distribution than earlier works on the subject which had less marketing clout. Netflix of course had previously financed The Square, about the 2011 uprising in Egypt which also ended in disappointment. Winter on Fire deserved its 2016 Oscar nomination (losing to Amy in the documentary feature category), but by concentrating on the highlights it lacked the powerful rawness of Sergei Loznitsa’s 2014 Maidan which better captured the boredom of the occupation as well as the visceral action. More importantly, now that some time has passed one might have expected a broader perspective on those momentous weeks. Gripping as it is, Winter on Fire’s simplistic narrative and lack of analysis means that it is far from being the last word on Euromaidan.
I’d like to thank Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, part of the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge, for arranging this screening, and Evgeny Afineevsky for giving us his time.