The Spark: Netflix's Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom

Netflix won’t be late to the Oscar game with its push for Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom in the race for Best Documentary Feature.

This feature-length work from filmmaker Evginy Afineevsky pulls from the tail end of his time documenting the growing dissent in Ukraine during the reign of the corrupt President, Viktor Yanukovych. In late 2013, while Afineevsky was filming in Kiev, peaceful protests at Maidan Square turned bloody. A revolutionary war broke out between student protesters, their sympathizers, and the militaristic police employed by Yanukovych, known as Berkut (and who bear a striking resemblance to Star Wars’ Imperial Stormtroopers).

[jump] The film chronicles the entire arc of the movement, from its beginning in the central square to its devolution into the full-scale, violent revolution that made world headlines. In several sequences, massive groups of people participate in large-scale collaboration. They display a unity that is distinctly absent from our own society.

Over the course of 93 days, tensions rose between the government and the opposition. Over a million people eventually came to the aid of those who would be soldiers in the fight for Ukraine’s self-determination. As viewers watch the movement grow exponentially, everyone — from ex-military men teaching war tactics, to women acting as nurses, to wealthy car owners guarding the base with their vehicles — act as cavalry for the growing resistance.

Simultaneously, Affineevsky organized his own coalition of cinematographers. The breadth of coverage came from drones, iPhones, and professional cameramen, many of whom were members of the uprising and who believed that Afinnevsky’s film was as important to the movement as any contributions from other citizens.

The film’s first shots show a young Ukrainian running through a winter day in Kiev as molotov cocktails scar the snowfall.

“What are you doing for the revolution?” he questions the unseen cameraman.

“I’m filming,” is the only response.

It is difficult to be unmoved seeing and hearing people from a variety of social classes, generations, and cities forming this united front. They are not afraid. They are ready to give their lives. Some will. They are ready to fight for their beliefs in the face of unjust opposition.

As Americans, this display of courage is astounding. Ukraine's revolution began as a peaceful protest in a central square covered in consumer advertisements that looks hardly different from Union Square in San Francisco’s downtown. Their massive New Year’s Eve protest includes LED lights and live music from Ukrainian celebrities. It doesn’t look so different from a massive music festival. 

Showcasing this intention, action, and collaboration from a vast and varied network of people could be the most incendiary element of this film for non-Ukrainian — and especially American — audiences. To watch subjects so similar to us foregrounds how passively we take our freedoms for granted. Our obvious lack of accord prevents us from making the changes in our supposedly progressive society that these brave individuals were so unafraid to do.

Winter on Fire highlights their struggle from a standpoint of empathy and one of posterity. It also succeeds at almost guilting the audience into the desire to create change, to be a part of something larger, to do something that means something.

At a recent local screening, Affineevsky said that “it is important for the people [of Ukraine] to remind the government that they are the ones in power.” If only we, amid our own senseless violence, were willing to do the same.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom, Thursday, Nov. 5 at 8:30 p.m. at the Vogue Theater, or online with a Netflix subscription.


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