Winter on Fire: Ukraine‘s Fight for Freedom

December 5, 2015 • Articles • Views: 1821

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Text by Agne Dovydaityte

Edited by Darya Malyutina

21 November marked two years since Ukraine’s  former president Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign the Association Agreement with the EU, and protests erupted in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square).

Shortly after the first students gathered in the Maidan, the peaceful protest was faced with brutal violence from the Berkut special police forces. The nation stood strong for 93 days, determined to get their freedom or die fighting for it. What started as a rally against corrupt government, abuse of power, and violation of human rights, resulted in so-called Revolutsiya Gidnosti (Revolution of Dignity) in February 2014.

Finally, Yanukovych fled the country. However, Ukraine’s struggle did not end: the revolution was promptly followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and an armed conflict with Russia-backed ‘separatists’ in the Donbas region, which in combination with widely used information warfare practices resulted in the current state of hybrid war between the countries.

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The nation‘s struggle to integrate into Europe, and later, the plight of standing for Ukraine and challenging the oppressive government was captured in Evgeny Afineevsky‘s award-winning documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine‘s Fight for Freedom. The movie was screened in London’s Ukrainian Club on 20 November, following a conversation with the film director.

The atrocities shown in the movie affected the audience so much that one could hear people sobbing around. While the screening started with “Slava Ukrayini!” (Glory to Ukraine!) slogans from the audience, in the end of it there was a dead silence when the viewers stood up to commemorate the dead.

The film starts with a short conversation: “Do something for the revolution!”, someone says. The answer that follows describes an important role of those who documented the events: “Well, I am filming”. Evgeny’s crew did not miss a touching or dramatic shot, and exhibited impressive skills of doing interviews with the protesters during and after EuroMaidan.

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After 10 days of demonstrations, police forces started to disperse the crowd by beating anthem-singing protesters regardless of their age, gender and health condition. It changed the nation forever. One of the initial slogans, “The police is with the people”, lost its meaning in the brutal clashes that followed.

If the attacks on students surprised people during the first days of the protest, by the end of it Ukrainians were used to seeing Berkut officers destroying medical stations, attacking Red Cross workers, shooting people with real bullets and killing their own neighbours.

On 11 December 2013, Mykhalyvs’kyi Monastery started to ring all its bells. “The last time it happened was in 1240 when the Mongol-Tatars invaded Kyiv,” said bell-ringer of the monastery Ivan Sydor. In 2013, it was the guards of the country who were putting people in danger.

Evgeny Afineevsky might be criticised for creating a one-sided or biased narrative of the protest: the voices of the ‘other side’ – the police officers, for instance – are absent from the documentary. As the director said in the Q&A session after the screening, his goal was not to show the revolution from a journalistic or political point of view. His aim was to give voice to the activists, to place the camera in their midst, and to show how it felt to be at the frontline from the first to the last day of the protests.

It is the sense of freedom and the need to fight injustice that brings people together.

At the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, Winter On Fire won the Grolsch People’s Choice Documentary Award. The documentary was produced in part by Netflix and has been praised for its bold approach to cinematography and clear editing style. In the light of the global increase of civic activism, the film has a potential to bring the feeling of this revolution to the audiences across the world and make them empathise with the plight of Ukrainians. While the protest reminded of the revolutionary wave of the late 1980s-early 1990s and the break-up of the Soviet Union, took place in Ukraine, and was filmed by a Los Angeles-based director of Russian-Israeli origin, its message is universal: it is the sense of freedom and the need to fight injustice that brings people together.

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