Peaceful marching through the streets has always been the time-honored way of public protest. The 2013/14 Ukranian AutoMaidan Revolution (aka “Revolution of Dignity”) started with orderly demonstrations as thousands of fed-up citizens people took to the streets of Kiev (capital city). The protesters gathered in the city’s independence square to oppose President Viktor Yanukovych government’s refusal to sign trade agreement with European Union. But, the political machinery replied by unveiling one violent tactic after another. And, it took 93 days, loss of 125 lives and unbridled people’s spirit to uproot the agendas of top-order brutes. Documentary film-maker Evgeny Afineevsky’s “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” (2015) vividly captures the harrowing transformation of the protests that gradually oriented to a full-blown revolution. The documentary is, of course, limited by its point of view, but it is hard to be not emotionally overwhelmed as we witness these people’s incredible act of defiance.
“Winter on Fire” starts with a brief introduction for the reasons behind the initial student movement against the Ukrainian government. The protests soon gathered immense support from people of all ages and word spread through social media. Nevertheless, things soon reached the ugly stage as the riot police “Berkut” and “Titushky” (hired pro-government thugs) ganged up & senselessly beaten the ordinary citizens in an effort to scare them. These thrashings only strengthened the people’s unity as they decided to stay in ‘Maidan’ aka ‘Independence Square’ until President Yanukovych resigns or the government relents. But, the seemingly democratic nation responded by imposing dictatorship laws. And, when the people in Maidan did everything to break these ridiculous laws, the special police forces upgraded its barbaric tactics, by even using live ammunition on unarmed citizens (even shoots at Red Cross workers & stretcher-bearers). The uniformed & hired creatures also ransacked hospitals, kidnapped key activists and tested the protesters’ durability. If you had never had of what unfolded in Kiev, two years back, you might never believe that a positive resolution will ever come out of this resilient struggle.
The foremost attention-grabbing aspect of the documentary is the staggering amount of footage Afineevsky has gathered (as bullets whizzes past) to make us understand the powerful endurance of Ukrainian citizens. And, when you see these images, the need for politicizing becomes inert. The footage taken at every key, metamorphosing moment in the freedom fight is finely juxtaposed with the interviews of activists (done after the violence were mitigated), who were on the streets of Kiev, when actions unfolded. At times, even the overpowering bird’s eye view shots convey a lot about people’s endurance than words. The visuals of hundreds of Berkut forces pushing against the insurmountable human barricade or the way these strangers come together to organize make-shift kitchens and hospitals simply uplifts and inspires us. The other images of seeing old women praying, while the armed police rounds-up the protesters or the captures of the killings infuriates our senses.
“Winter on Fire” does dwell a lot on the emotional consequences as it should be. A doctor recalls the worst day, “Having to decide who was already dead was the hardest thing”. Then there is a likable 12 year old street boy, enunciating his belief on the struggle. There are many such heart-breaking and poignant moments. But, by design the documentary’s perspective is limited and considering the loss of Ukrainian lives in its ongoing war with Russia (also consider the tacit pro-Russian eastern Ukraine), “Winter on Fire” could be seen as a propaganda piece. Still, this is a significant & must-watch propaganda which reminds us of the resilience of human spirit.