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“Winter on Fire” review. Oscar documentary series

Winter on Fire is an incredible look at the Ukrainian protests of 2013 and 2014. For 93 days, an immense movement of Ukrainian citizens from all walks of life fought against the threat of Russian political domination. If it had been a peaceful event, perhaps it would have gone down as merely a footnote in history. But a heavy-handed government escalated the situation into a deadly brawl that is immortalized in this fearless film.

The first thing that hits you when you start watching Winter on Fire is how very personal it is. The movie uses a mix of citizen journalism via cellphones and the footage from professional journalists who were right in the thick of things, even when bullets started flying. You see everything right up close, close enough to see every facial expression, hear every yell, and experience the fear and chaos.

The first quarter of the film quickly sets the scene: the Ukrainian President makes a back-room deal with Vladimir Putin that cozies up to Russia. But a very large portion of the Ukrainian citizenry wants to join the European Union and put Russia firmly in the rear-view mirror. The events cause a surge of anti-government sentiment, protests start, and the government sends in troops and special forces to stomp on the resistance.

Those efforts backfire, as they always do eventually. But what makes the Ukrainian protests so remarkable is how swiftly and forcefully the citizenry hit back. They take over the Independence Square in Kiev, and set the stage for a brutal conflict.

Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine before and after the conflict

Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine before and after the conflict

As the resourceful and highly organized protesters put up barricades made of wood, wire, and anything else they can find, there’s a strong Les Miserables vibe, and even one of the protesters mentions that it feels more like an 18th century defense than a modern day one. But the thematic comparison helps connect this struggle to the French Revolution, and all the subsequent revolutions it inspired.

Despite the beautiful display of human spirit and perseverance, most of the time this is a film of ugly and uncensored brutality. The beatings of the early days of the protest give way to shootings, with snipers picking off hapless citizens armored only with flimsy metal pots and thin sheets of aluminum.

There are several scenes where the first-person footage shows us a Ukrainian citizen get shot by sniper fire, fall down, and die. The daring up close and personal camera work makes it feel like you’re right there next to the man, watching him breathe his last breaths.

Later, when the tides turn and the throng of protesters overcome the government forces, there’s a haunting shot of a citizen striking one of the cops who had lost his helmet. Blood spurts. Skull fragments fly into the air. He drops to the ground in a heap, motionless. The frantic crowd of protesters, garbed in makeshift armor and weaponry, swarms past his body, on to the next fight.

It’s so real it’s surreal. For most of us, these kinds of scenes only play out in movies and video games.

Winter on Fire unwittingly and unintentionally becomes a film about the horrors of war. No sane person can watch this movie and ever gleefully celebrate any declaration of combat. This is vibrant, hopeful human life extinguished right before our eyes in a way that the US Armed forces doesn’t allow embedded journalists to show. It is a civil war for a nation that should be unified in their culture and traditions. Instead they are fighting among themselves and wasting their most precious resource: the lives of their young people.

Those people died for the most precious of human ideals: freedom. But was that really what they accomplished in the end, or simply a brief respite?

If there is a weakness in the film, it’s the limited political context surrounding the events. There’s only a brief description of the political environment at the beginning of the film, then it’s all focused on the chaos of the protests. The Ukrainian situation was (and still is) much more complicated than a simple matter of one shady politician. More information about the political and cultural forces surrounding the world outside the protests would have been really helpful. But I think that can be forgiven since the producers wanted to have full focus on the remarkable battles between the common people and the government agents who were supposed to be protecting them.

The result is a story that could have been taken right out of the pages of the V for Vendetta graphic novel. People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.

You can watch Winter on Fire on Netflix. For my reviews of other Oscar-nominated documentaries, check out my review of Amy, What Happened, Miss Simone, and Cartel Land

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