Interview with Winter on Fire director Evgeny Afineevsky

April 20, 2016 • Articles • Views: 1138

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Text by Agne Dovydaityte

Edited by Darya Malyutina

‘Now I understand what you meant saying that the last time you watched this movie people around you just burst into tears,’ says Stephen Dalziel, former BBC World Service correspondent after watching Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom at the U.S. Embassy on Wednesday 13 April.

It was not the first time the movie was shown to a London audience. Less than a year has passed since the harrowing film was screened for the first time; however, the viewers then mostly included members of the Ukrainian community in London. This Wednesday, a much broader audience had a chance to see Winter on Fire on the big screens.

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The documentary’s popularity grew dramatically after it was nominated for the Oscars this year. Although the director Evgeny Afineevsky is busy jumping from country to country promoting his much-acclaimed documentary, he found the time to talk about bringing the so-called Revolution of Dignity to the international audiences, and about his future plans to give voice to oppressed people via cinema. ‘It’s all about human stories,’ Afineevsky said.

Although the director is of Russian origin, has lived and worked in Israel, and is now based in the US, he calls himself an outsider, an impartial person thrown into the Maidan. ‘I came to the Maidan to tell the story to the international audience. No one can blame me for being Ukrainian; no one can blame me for being an activist. You can’t allow yourself to be too attached to what is happening. No, I’m not a Ukrainian activist, I don’t have any roots there, and this allows me to be trusted, and to tell the story.’

However, the director noted that this line turned out to be very thin, and it was very hard not to become an engaged participant. ‘My involvement in the Maidan was to document the history.’ At the same time, he recalls helping people in critical situations. ‘There were many times when I helped or wanted to help… But still, my main task was to film and I stuck to it. Never threw stones, never made Molotov cocktails. I guess the camera was my weapon and the biggest help I could provide.’

Reflecting on the Maidan now, Afineevsky stressed that on Kyiv’s central square, he has found ’human stories, power of unity, real patriotism, and bravery.’ The stories in the movie, according to the director, demonstrates the real meaning of patriotism, as many victims who died fighting for Ukraine were not even Ukrainians.

’But what is real patriotism for you then,’ I asked, ‘you have lived in quite a few countries, where do you feel you are a patriot?’

‘The United States,’ he answered confidently. Afineevsky said that victims of the Maidan prove that your heart does not necessarily have to belong to the country where you were born; it is all about your feelings, about the country where you feel good, where you feel at home. ‘The US gave me a lot. This country allows me to be creative in my own ways and it is very important to any artist. Look at Sentsov: he was also an artist with his freedom. But his freedom was taken from him and he was accused of terrorism. However, the only terrorism he did was filming the truth around him.’

This is a critical topic for today’s journalism and filmmaking: ’There is no protection,’ Afineevsky asserts.

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Eight journalists died in Ukraine in 2014. The Maidan took the first victim: Vyacheslav Veremiy, who worked for the Vesti newspaper, was shot dead in the streets of Kyiv, and died in the hospital on 19 February 2014. The other seven died later while reporting on the conflict in the Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. A number of journalists were injured during the Maidan, when Press insignia, as well as Red Cross emblems, were used as a target.

Staying safe and objective at the same time seems to be one of the most difficult tasks while reporting on a conflict. Afineevsky has often been accused of failing to present a more nuanced story. The shaping of his narrative has caused some questions: for example, not interviewing any members of Berkut or the police, or politicians is described as possibly leading to creation of a one-sided story of the Maidan. ‘This movie is built upon the people’s voice. Berkut does not talk. They let you come closer and then they shoot. This is how they told their story,’ is the director’s response to critique.

It has been a while now since another big humanitarian story started dominating the news – the Syrian refugee crisis inevitably got Afineevsky’s attention and he has already started to make a documentary about it: ‘I feel like after I gave voice to the Ukrainian people, now it’s time for the refugees to be heard, and the best way to do it is through the stories of refugee children.’

However, addressing the refugee crisis proves to be very different from filming the Maidan. ‘The Maidan was mainly protests on one square, a few streets, let’s say, one city. The refugee crisis is a much wider issue, and way more dangerous. Bullets are bullets, but cutting heads is cutting heads,’ he said.

In the panel discussion with Afineevsky where the other participants were Ben Judah, journalist and author of the Fragile Empire, and Natalia Galibarenko, Ukrainian Ambassador to the UK, more questions were raised about the movie and the current situation in Ukraine.

Judah expressed his concerns that in the results of the Maidan in terms of democratic development of the country are now under threat, as the local political and economic systems are still flawed and oligarch-dominated, still featuring high levels of corruption and a lack of transparency. ‘The real struggle today is not the same that the country was facing a year ago in the East. Today, the conflict is between reformers and fake reformers in Kyiv. From what we have seen after the Dutch referendum, the threat comes from the Western side of Europe as well,’ Judah warned. ‘The Dutch referendum has put a knife in the back of Ukraine.’ At the same time, he underlined that it was a signal that changing the government is not enough; it is also important that the new government does not repeat the old mistakes.

Galibarenko pointed out that the current conflict in Ukraine is not a ‘frozen conflict’ but rather a classic conflict and a complex hybrid war between the two states, the future of which is still vague.

Two years after the revolution, the topic of atrocities and instability in Ukraine still remains relevant. The implications of current changes in the government cannot be understood without considering what has been happening in the country in the last two years. As long as the international audiences are reminded of these events via cinema, discussions, or media, the Ukrainian community can maintain hope that no more Dutch referendums or vain Minsk agreements can stop Ukraine’s fragile but persistent integration with the West.

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