Review: Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom (2015)

The winner of the People’s Choice Documentary Award at TIFF15, Evgeny Afineevsky’s Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom contains some of the most stunning raw footage I’ve ever seen. Afineevsky, a Russian-born filmmaker living in the US, was in the exact right (or wrong, depending on how you see it) place at the right time. Filming the Ukrainian Maidan Revolution from day one, Afineevsky captures a watershed moment in European history. Too bad, then, that Afineevsky and distributor Netflix don’t rely on the visuals to do the talking for them. Refusing to offer even a semblance of objectivity, and overlaying the film with some of the most thunderously manipulative music imaginable, Winter on Fire treads into the territory of propaganda. Winter on Fire remains a fine film because of the strength of its footage, but the final product falls short of its potential.

On 21 November 2013, Ukrainian protesters unhappy with then-president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to decline membership in the European Union took to Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) in Kyiv to voice their outrage. What started as a few hundred people protesting a corrupt president in cahoots with Russia soon turned into a full-fledged revolution as tens of thousands of people gathered in the square for the coming months, turning the square into a makeshift fortress entrenched against the corrupt forces of Yanukovych’s Ukrainian government. Winter on Fire captures this revolution from the get-go, with on-the-ground footage of the initial protests, through the various clashes with the corrupt Berkut (special police) and the eventual ousting of Yanukovych in spring of 2014.

Winter on Fire’s footage is shocking. Afineevsky captures almost every essential moment of this revolution from its inception by compiling smartphone footage from various protesters with his own HD footage from two Canon DSLRs. Afineevsky intercuts this footage with interviews of important protesters contextualizing the events for us months later. We see people gathering together and singing the Ukrainian national anthem in protest. We witness the Berkut storming the makeshift barricades of Maidan and shooting defenseless protestors with tear gas and rubber bullets. We even see some of the many fatalities caused by the vicious Berkut. This is overwhelming stuff, and Afineevsky tries to frame it through the perspective of the protesters themselves, attempting “direct cinema.”

Too bad, then, that he doesn’t accomplish any objective distance. Firmly believing that his film is a political tool and essential document of recent world history, Afineevsky weighs the film to the Maidan revolutionaries at every turn. The way that Afineevsky refuses to contextualize the greater problems with Ukrainian democracy and throws all the blame on Yanukovych and his cronies, compounded with the heavy-handedness of the score, makes the film blatantly manipulative. The film becomes reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein and his famous Battleship Potemkin: it’s ideology first, technically-proficient film second. Propaganda might be Afineevsky’s intent, but I believe that propaganda is inherently a misstep when it comes to art. It priorities the message above all else and reduces film to nothing more than a didactic tool for social change.

This reduction isn’t even ideologically necessary with Winter on Fire. Afineevsky didn’t need to stack the deck in the favour of the protesters. He could have simply presented the footage and let the viewer make up his or her own mind. Odds are, the vast majority of viewers would’ve completely sympathized with the Maidan Revolution in any case. The footage of the protesters’ bravery and the Berkut’s atrocities does enough of the talking for him.

Winter on Fire is a powerful film, but it’s essentially propaganda. And however stunning propaganda can be, it’s neither journalism nor great art.

7 out of 10

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015, USA/UK/Ukraine)

Directed by Evgeny Afineevsky.