Netflix UK film review: Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom
James R | On 27, Feb 2016
Director: Evgeny Afineevsky
Cast: Bishop Agapit, Serhii Averchenko, Kristina Berdinskikh
Watch Winter on Fire online in the UK: Netflix
In 2013, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych went back on a deal that would have integrated the nation with Europe. In response, a group of students gathered in Maidan to protest. Over more than 90 days, that small demonstration grew and grew into a fully-fledged revolution, demanding the resignation of Yanukovych.
The unrest is no stranger to our screens, partly because conflict in the region is still ongoing today – but Evgeny Afineevsky’s documentary captures the uprising with an immediacy and intimacy missing from news bulletins.
As the title suggests, Winter on Fire is a passionate project, which chronicles the effective formation of a civil rights movement. That burning flame of conviction was also present in The Square, Netflix’s 2014 documentary, which captured the 2011 protests in Cairo. After that astonishing movie earned the streaming giant its first Oscar nomination, it’s perhaps no surprise that Netflix has also added Afineevsky’s film to its original doc line-up. While the film has also earned a nod at the 2016 Academy Awards, though – Netflix is also nominated in the same category for What Happened, Miss Simone? – that similarity only highlights Winter on Fire’s shortcomings.
Afineevsky’s presentation is nothing less than extraordinary: with over 20 cameramen shooting in Kiev’s central square and elsewhere, Winter on Fire presents events from almost every perspective possible. It’s a masterpiece of editing, as Will Znidaric manages to compile and distil the enormous tapestry of videos into something both urgent and understandable.
“In what country would people be able to live under these laws?” asks one. “It would be easier to go straight to prison.” Interviews with protestors are perfectly matched with (frequently shocking) footage of events, as we witness the determination of citizens not to go back to tyranny after having experienced freedom: people risk (and forfeit) lives to rescue other wounded protestors, as armed forces descend, while even bankers and lawyers turn up to throw stones at the police.
When we’re on the ground in those moments, Winter on Fire is excellent, but the film is much weaker when it comes to any sense of a bigger picture. While a potted history of Ukraine makes for an accessible (if slightly cheesy) introduction, there’s little effort made to consider the ramifications of the protest, or even entertain opposing views – a difference that separates this from the superior The Square. As the title suggests, the filmmaker’s focus here is very much on supporting Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, period. The subsequent annexation of Crimea by Russia since those protests only emphasises the complexity of the political situation in the country, which this film, for all its stirring human interest, never really explores. The result is a powerful window onto a burning issue, but you wish its frame was a bit wider.
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.