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

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

One of the more accessible features about the subject, if also simpler in its polemics, was Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, a chronicle of the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, from late November 2013 to early February 2014.

It was made by Evgeny Afineevsky, who was born in 1972 in Kazan, Katar (then part of the Soviet Union) to a Russian Jewish family. He became an Israeli citizen (after serving in the army) in the early 1990s, before relocating to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the film business.

The film world-premiered at the 2015 Venice Film Festival, and later played at the Toronto Film Festival, where it won the People’s Choice Award for best documentary. The film was then nominated for the 2015 Best Documentary Feature Oscar, but did not win.

Two weeks ago, in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Netflix (which had co-produced the film) made the film available for free via YouTube.

Director Afineevsky has gathered a wide variety of witnesses, including student activists, journalists, laborers, artists and clergy, who all add sharp voices to the collage of atrocities.

Winter on Fire displayed the intensity of an action movie, even if it relied too heavily on montages of an ever-growing crowd, culminating in an estimated one million protestors at the center of town, demonstrating a stunning act of defiance.

The colorful gallery of children and older women (babushki), priests and students, Muslims and Jews, was meant to suggest that Ukraine’s people from all walks of life participated in the Maidan uprising.

One of the most engaging of these interviewees is a boy of 12, who, considering his age, offers a remarkably clear view of the turbulent conflict.

Moreover, the film was criticized for showing neo-Nazi symbols used by the extreme right-wing protesters, without contextualizing or commenting on them.

The narrative grows repetitive, partly because it provides limited historical context or larger overview of how Putin’s growing authoritarianism has impacted Ukraine and the whole region.

Yet there are unmistakably moving moments that convey the brutality of the government’s response to a popular and populist movement, which went beyond the realm of politics per se.

The power of the imagery may explain the why Winter on Fire has continued to be used as an effective tool by protesters of various nationalities. Since it was made the film was shown in Caracas in 2017, during the Venezuelan anti-government protests, rallying against President Nicolás Maduro, and it was put to use again during the 2019–2020 Hong Kong protests.