Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom — Capsule Review

The haunting aftermath.


Despite employing a filming method consisting of new technology, Winter on Fire is a documentary which performs at the very roots of the genre – documenting.”

by Ken B.

The Berkut, Ukraine’s militarized wing of the national special police, first attempted to disperse the protesters marching through Kiev by using batons – iron batons, which drew blood and shattered bones. Then, they replaced those batons with tear gas. And then they replaced their tear gas with rubber bullets. And then they replaced their rubber bullets with real ones. In Evgeny Afineevsky’s Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, we are shown the resilience of the protesters from the trenches, so to speak, with 98 unrelenting minutes of footage, much of it on-the-fly content shot by those present. What started as a peaceful demonstration against a pro-Russian government shutting down proposed EU trade negotiations devolved into a series of draconian anti-protest laws (including attempts to censor nationwide Internet access), and a violent, lethal crackdown from a paranoid government, forcefully chasing after those who marched through the streets, demanding change.

Sure, they were able to force the hand of the Ukrainian cabinet and vote in new elections, but it shouldn’t have cost the lives of over a hundred protesters, and resulted in many nights where a developed country’s capital burned like a third world warzone. That’s hard to argue with on paper, but it becomes a very different and visceral matter of fact with expertly cut and assembled clips. Netflix appears to have taken a particular liking to these vérité documentaries about contemporary revolts, and certainly the ubiquity of video capture has led to the world to recognizing that these conflicts are very real. It’s a stunningly presented film, although there is a problem with how Afineevsky creates the narrative that Euromaidan was the core issue of the protests, and its end could be treated as a finale in any way – in reality, the Russian government under Vladimir Putin is continually pushing into its neighboring state, and this territorial struggle is far from over.

Otherwise, the movie is unapologetically in the camp of the protesters. It’s important to note that it doesn’t act as a balanced overview of the situation. While this works in terms of creating a uniquely focused approach to the material, some may find it vaguely propagandistic. However, I feel it’s important to draw the distinction that Afineevsky carries an ideology from minute one, and he does not attempt to hide it or claim to carry an impartial worldview. This is the story of one side in a fight, plain and simple. The interspersing of traditional “talking head” interviews helps contextualize matters without overly ruining the flow. But mostly, Afineevsky just lets the footage speak for itself, and the impact it makes is largely uninterrupted (a wishy-washy musical score notwithstanding). Despite employing a filming method  consisting of new technology, Winter on Fire is a documentary which performs at the very roots of the genre – documenting. The intensity is fully organic, and hits home with shearing, prodding pertinence.

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