What began as a peaceful, almost festival-like protest in November 2013 — sparked by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s failure to sign a promised trade agreement with the European Union, choosing an alliance with Russia instead — inexorably grew into the Molotov cocktail- fueled conflagration alluded to, both literally and metaphorically, in the title of the film “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.”
Directed by the Russian-born American documentarian Evgeny Afineevsky, using footage shot by 28 professional and amateur photographers with a worm’s-eye view of the ensuing battles between protesters and Yanukovych’s goons, this Academy Award-nominated, Netflix-produced film plays out like a harrowingly bloody, real-life “Les Miserables.”
People get beaten and shot on camera — and occasionally die — in this mesmerizing portrait of protest and crackdown, seen not through the lens of politics, but through the prism of the personal. “Winter on Fire” has all the immediacy and power of drama. If it lacks the dispassionate context of more balanced journalism, it makes up for it with a complex, contradictory emotional impact that is simultaneously demoralizing and hopeful.
Afineevsky begins and ends his film at the culmination of the so-called Maidan protest movement, which grew up in and around Kiev’s Maidan (or “Independence”) Square over the course of a single winter. Opening in February 2014, shortly before Yanukovych’s forced resignation and exile in Russia, the film then backtracks a few months to the movement’s birth. Shot in the midst of the protesters — with only a distant perspective on the riot-gear-clad special police (the Berkut) and their hired civilian thugs — “Winter” thereafter proceeds chronologically if sometimes confusingly. There are many terms that will be initially unfamiliar to some viewers, and which eventually come into focus only through context.
Despite the plentiful violence and mayhem, “Winter on Fire” also documents moments of surreal dark humor, as when Yanukovych’s government bans the wearing of helmets, because the protestors had taken to wearing bicycle helmets and hard hats as protection from the Berkut’s iron batons and bullets (first rubber, then real ones). In response, some protesters get around the prohibition by wearing pots and pans on their heads.
Generally speaking, though, there’s nothing unserious about this important film. As it ends with Yanukovych’s Feb. 22, 2014, flight from Kiev, the Maidan movement seems to have accomplished its immediate goals. But on-screen titles write a depressing postscript. It will be a sobering reminder to anyone who has been following the news reports of the ensuing conflicts in the Ukraine, where a bloody war still rages, prompted by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014.
One wildfire might have burned itself out, but another has taken its place.
Unrated. At the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Also available on Netflix. Contains bloody violence, brief obscenity and brief nudity. In Ukrainian and some English with subtitles. 104 minutes.