Oscar-nominated documentary film “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” presents a close look into the Euromaidan protest in Ukraine, which was ignited in 2013 November and then blazed for 93 days until President Viktor Yanukovych left the country in 2014 February. While its focused viewpoint is inherently narrow and limited, the documentary did a competent job of taking us right into the middle of the protest, and it is also equipped with several powerful sights to grip and stir us.
After giving us a brief overview on Ukraine’s geopolitical circumstance after its separation from the Soviet Union in 1991, the documentary unfolds its narrative as alternating between the video footage scenes shot by no less than 28 cameramen during the protest and the interview clips shot during its aftermath. When President Yanukovych’s government suspended the preparation for signing the EU Association Agreement as a part of its pro-Russia policy, this decision angered many Ukrainian people supporting the EU Association Agreement, and it was soon followed by the beginning of the protest at Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kiev on November 21st, 2013. As a number of interviewees tell us about its beginning, we see how the scale of the protest became bigger within a few days; there were only a few hundred of them during the first hours, but then the square was quickly filled with thousands of people while their voices became louder and louder.
Not so surprisingly, President Yanukovych and his government responded with harsh tactics. The special police forces, called Berkut, were brought to the site along with hired thugs known as Titushky, and the situation was soon escalated into the violent clashes between policemen and demonstrators on the streets of Kiev. It is disturbing to see people brutally beaten by policemen and hired thugs who had no mercy for demonstrators, and it is also infuriating to see how the Ukrainian government tried to suppress demonstrators further through not only passing an impertinent restriction law at the parliament but also allowing harsher tactics.
Nevertheless, demonstrators were not easily deterred from their fight for democracy. They stuck together as putting aside their differences, and we meet various clergies who were supportive of the protest. In case of the St. Michael’s Golden-domed Monastery which is located near to the square, its priests willingly provided a temporary shelter for demonstrators, and one priest even made a big public gesture through something which had never happened in the city since the Mongol invasion in 1240.
While nothing was certain for them during that time, we see hope and passion among demonstrators, and their indomitable spirit is reflected by the exuberant celebration of New Year’s Day at the square. Although the protest was continued longer than expected and the police kept oppressing them hard, they also received lots of support from not only Kiev but also the other places in the country, and they even came to have their own security guards while preparing themselves for another clash with the police.
But we also observe how things got worse for them during 2014 February. The police began to use real bullets instead of rubber ones, and there were more casualties as a consequence (It was later reported that 125 people were killed, 65 people were gone missing, and 1890 people were injured during the protest period). Even people who went there for the medical treatment of injured demonstrators were attacked, and we see a temporary hospital being burned at one point. Some of people interviewed in the film were killed during the protest, and we see how their death deeply affected other demonstrators.
The director Evgeny Afineevsky is indubitably on their side in his tight focus, but I cannot help but wonder whether he should present the viewpoint of the other side for our better understanding of his subject. While we do get several pieces of TV footage to give us the glimpses of the whole circumstance, we do not learn a lot about what was going on in the other parts of Ukraine besides the Ukrainian government during the protest. In spite of his corrupt political career, President Yanukovych had the considerable support from the eastern regions of Ukraine which prefer Russia to EU, and it could be interesting to see how the protest was regarded in these regions, which have been another trouble in the country during recent years.
Despite these visible weak points, it cannot be denied that Afineevsky and his crew accomplish their main goal. The editor Will Znidaric smoothly creates a clear, straightforward narrative flow amidst various video footage scenes, and some of them will made you wonder how they managed to shoot them during the protest. Packed with gritty tension and palpitating verisimilitude, they are so striking that they do not need to be supported by Jasha Klebe’s melodramatic score, which often seems as if it were played for a Hollywood blockbuster action flick.
While the Euromaidan protest was ended with a triumphant final note, it was soon followed by the civil war between the Ukrainian government and the pro-Russia separatists of the eastern regions who are backed by the Russian government, and it is still being continued even at this point with thousands of casualties. How the Euromaidan protest will be assessed in the future remains to be an open question, but “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” will retain its values as the vivid visual record of one historic moment, and it deserves to be compared with another Oscar-nominated documentary “The Square” (2013), which viewed the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 from the inside through a similar approach. It is not informative enough, but it is worthwhile to watch for experiencing that turbulent winter in Ukraine.