Evgeny Afineevsky’s Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom is big, bold, agitprop cinema—activist filmmaking that manages to be both angry and elegiac in its recounting of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution. After a brief introduction setting the stage for Euromaidan, when Ukrainians gathered in Kiev’s Independence Square to protest the government’s refusal to sign a trade agreement with the European Union, the documentary presents the winter revolution as it unfolded in nearly two hours’ worth of increasingly violent standoffs between the protesters on the one hand and police, “Berkut” (special police forces), and “Titushki” (hired pro-government thugs) on the other. The film is a tour de force that rarely slows down to consider the nuances of the politics behind the protests, focusing instead on the people behind them and their three-month struggle that eventually led to the ouster of President Yanukovych and the election of a pro-Western government.
Unlike Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan, which refused to contextualize discrete altercations or single out individual protesters for in-depth profiles, Afineevsky notes the location and time of every major development of the revolution and follows several protesters throughout the course of events. Two of the most likeable and eccentric are a Cossack hipster and a 12-year-old street urchin, a real-life Gavroche for this modern-day Les Misérables. Afineevsky includes these charming interlocutors to humanize the protesters and build sympathy for their cause, especially as their opponents are presented throughout as a dark, faceless mass, menacingly anonymous in their matching riot gear and rigid military formations.
The documentary makes no pretense of laying out both sides of the conflict, but also makes a convincing argument for the righteousness, lawfulness, and democratic impulses of the protests. Like Maidan, it persuasively argues that the protesters represented every nook and cranny of Ukrainian society, including interviews with young and old, Russian and Ukrainian speakers, and representatives of every religious group.
Winter on Fire’s greatest attribute is its brutal frontline footage of clashes between the protesters and the government’s security forces. While the police and Titushki are shown administering beatings to helpless, unarmed activists, the film save its special wrath for the Berkut, who are seen pulverizing teenage girls and the elderly, shooting Red Cross workers and stretcher bearers with live ammunition, and destroying medicine and first-aid stations. One particularly moving piece of footage captures one unarmed stretcher bearer in his death throes after being shot by a Berkut sniper, something that needs no politicizing to rouse the viewer’s anger against the government and elicit their sympathy for the protesters.
The doc also makes a convincing argument that the Berkut planted provocateurs among the protesters to justify the use of excessive force. This, and the conspicuous lack of fascist nationalists among the protesters, are the film’s most subtle and important political arguments, as they undermine Russian media claims that it was precisely such fascists that sparked and led the revolution. While it celebrates the liberté, égalité, and fraternité that made Euromaidan such a euphoric, utopian cause, Winter on Fire is more than just a nostalgic celebration, as it also functions as vital propaganda in Ukraine’s ongoing battle against Russian separatists and the Russian military aggression unleashed in its Eastern provinces by the revolution.