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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

Book Review: Fringe – The Zodiac Paradox

As a Fringe book, and a “prequel” version of a TV series that’s no longer on-air, this story works pretty well and gives fans what they want. But as a novel taken on its own merits it’s fairly average.

If you’re a fan of the show (and you’d have to be to have any interest in this book at all), the main thing you’ll be interested in is the portrayal of Walter Bishop. I can say for certain that Faust’s characterization of Walter is very much in line with what you saw in the TV series. This is understandable, given the nature of this novel and its intended audience; the directive was probably not to mess with the formula too much. But part of me wishes that the author took more liberties with Walter’s youth. Everyone changes as they mature, but in this book Walter in his late twenties is pretty much exactly the same as Walter in his sixties (even the way he dresses).

William Bell and Nina Sharp also figure prominently in the story. Bell’s characterization is fairly unremarkable and straightforward, and he lacks the deviousness and outside-the-box thinking we came to associate with the founder of Massive Dynamic. Again, there was opportunity to break fascinating new ground with these characters, but the story plays it safe in that regard. Nina actually comes out as the most interesting character of the bunch. She’s young and feisty and much more daring and clever than either Bell or Walter. Nina was the main aspect of the story that kept me reading.

As the book title suggests, the story follows our intrepid trio of Sharp, Bell, and Bishop as they hunt the famed Zodiac Killer in the midst of his reign of terror. But there’s a Fringe-y twist: the Zodiac is actually from the parallel universe, and he was brought here by Walter and Bell during a trial of a special blend of LSD that would eventually become cortexiphan. There are many subtle and not-so-subtle references to both major and obscure aspects of the TV show. The story does often feel like an overlong standalone episode of the series (in both good ways and bad). It’s a good concept, and one that fits into the Fringe lore.

But a great concept needs great execution, and this book has a few issues. These supposedly genius-level characters often do fairly stupid things, and although Nina comes off as the “sharpest” of the bunch, she and William Bell are still lacking the cunning minds we came to know in the series. Also, the author does a little too much description for my tastes. She often delves into long descriptions of minutiae about side characters who barely appear for a few pages, and places that are just briefly visited. I’m don’t mind descriptive, rich world-building, but sometimes it should be done with a light touch so the main story can flow. Far too often, the descriptions got in the way of the story and I found myself fighting the urge to skip over paragraphs. But, I’ll readily admit this is a matter of reading taste and others may find this style to their liking.

If you really, really liked Fringe and you felt the series ended too soon, this book will definitely give you your fix. If you were a more of a casual fan, you might not like this as much.

disclosure: I received a free ARC copy from the publisher