“Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” opens with a young man surrounded by the sounds of bullets and shouts of civilians: “This is the Ukrainian Revolution … I was just dragging a dead body. I stepped in blood. You can’t surprise me with anything,” he says.
It’s winter 2013. We’re in Kiev, Ukraine under the regime of Pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, a man whose previous run for the presidency in 2004 was fraught with allegations of corruption and embattled by protests known as the Orange Revolution. The country, once again, became enmeshed in a geopolitical tug-of-war between Western Europe and Russia. Yanukovych promises alignment with the European Union publicly, but privately, he organizes a deal with Russia.
Outraged by Yanukovych’s secret political dealings, citizens organize a protest at Maidan Square in Kiev. Like the Arab Spring and similar public protests, many of the thousands at Maidan became involved through social media. Many of them, moreover, are apolitical — they’re ordinary citizens. They chant, “Ukraine is part of Europe!” For the first time since the invasion of the Tatars in the 12th Century, every single bell of St. Michael’s Monastery rang.
What’s most remarkable about “Winter on Fire” is how it was shot. The film consists mostly of footage from inside the protests, putting you right inside the action. We see men and women beaten with shocking immediacy. At one point, a man, bending down to put one of the scores of wounded onto a stretcher, is shot on camera. The film attests to the courage of the citizens fighting for freedom and, also, to the filmmakers who risked their lives shooting it.
After the protests began, Kiev became a warzone. Protesters created barricades to defend themselves against the Berkut. They used makeshift munitions: they made shields from the material at hand, used rocks and bricks as weapons and wore kitchen pots for helmets.
Over the 93 days of protest, spanning from early November through Feb. 22, the police force used against Ukrainian citizens — accompanied by hired mercenaries —escalated from full-scale beatings to murder: 125 people were killed; 65 remain missing; 1,890 were treated for injuries.
“Winter on Fire” locates its drama in the plight of these ordinary citizens turned protesters. It’s less concerned with the nuances of geopolitics than the abuse of power and fight for human dignity. It’s not a documentary that merely exposes — it advocates. It’s wholly and explicitly one-sided, an unofficial, oral history of the citizens who fought and survived the battles in Kiev. The singularity of its political viewpoint is its triumph, but it falters in failing to establish the political conditions in which the citizens fought. The film calls for humanitarian democracy, for civil rights and for freedom in the face of totalitarianism, but it fails to really carve out the face of this particular totalitarianism.
While “Winter on Fire” suffers slightly from its failure to adequately provide its political context, the film remains an exceptional and compelling documentary. It’s a visual and oral history of the Ukrainian citizens’ incredible bravery, and it’s a well-crafted reminder that the unity of citizens can result in political change.