Standing Their Ground: A View Inside a Ukrainian Revolution
By Mark Danner
September 01, 2015
WINTER ON FIRE
Ukraine, 2015, 102m
Director: Evgeny Afineevsky
In November 2013, the Ukrainian government abruptly canceled plans to join the European Union, a shock for citizens who dreamed of escaping Russian domination to become part of the West. Thus began one of the most inspiring revolutions of modern times. EVGENY AFINEEVSKY’S documentary WINTER ON FIRE follows, from week one, the Ukrainian protests known as the Maidan. For three months, the Ukrainian people—800,000 at the demonstration’s heights—took to the streets to protest. The protestors stayed even as government forces turned to violence—on one day, the police killed 50 citizens—remaining until Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was removed from office in February 2014. MARK DANNER spoke to Afineevsky about the movement’s geopolitical implications and the film’s on-the-spot portrayal of revolution, political violence and deep cultural change.
MARK DANNER: Among other things, your film is a timeless depiction of revolution and how it happens on the ground. In this regard the film attains a kind of universality, far beyond its time and place. What were you hoping to capture when you started?
I arrived on the first days of the riots. Not even a riot; a peaceful, happy festival. My friends and their kids came just to show that they wanted to be part of Europe. They wanted independence. For me, it was important to capture the moment. I didn’t know where the movie would take me, but every day, there were new developments. We didn’t know what would happen tomorrow, and the tension was growing. The students and the youth were standing their own ground. They wanted to be heard, by the government and by Europe. This didn’t start to be about political change in the country. It was about self-determination and happiness. I tried to give a cinematic tribute to these people who changed the nation, who changed what it means to be Ukrainian. I wanted to show their heroism.
At the start the demonstrators didn’t want anything to do with traditional politics, but under the force of events their goals evolve. Finally, they demand the end of the Yanukovych government.
As the Maidan was absorbing this brutal beating from the police, everyone realized that it’s not just about integration with Europe, but it is also about the government, which they saw had become a dictatorship. The army was protecting the regime. Integration became a secondary issue. Corruption, dictatorship, the brutality of the police—those became main issues. This is how the revolution started. The nation that was reborn there, through these fires, through the flying bullets, through a real fight.
A great deal of the film is character development, which is unusual as a political film. Can you talk about some of the most striking figures, perhaps the 12-year-old revolutionary?
He is a fascinating person. He ran away from his home, and I met him then. I followed him through the Maidan. I saw him on the barricades, with bullets flying over his shield, and he never left. After three months of Maidan, he was different as a human. He completely changed his perception. This child will never again have a childhood. His perception of the world around him is equal to most people who are 30 or 40 years old. I enjoyed observing this because he is the future of the nation.
You captured so many dream-like images: People arming themselves with pots on their heads and improvised armor, improvised barriers out of some fantastic medieval battle, or perhaps the post-apocalyptic Mad Max movies The demonstrators crafted a thoroughly makeshift world in the middle of a modern city in the middle of winter. What was it like to shoot these images?
For me, it’s different. I love these images. These people stayed human, with high spirits. They were able to laugh. This uplifted their own spirits, as they stood their ground. These people, through these harsh realities of the Ukrainian winter, were able to love and be creative.
The later scenes of violence, when the regime began shooting protesters, are some of the most terrifying scenes I’ve ever watched. I’ve been in crowds where police or soldiers are shooting, and you are being shot at while imprisoned in the crowd. You capture the pure terror of that. The heroism on display is almost incomprehensible, as people go on facing the bullets even as their fellows are shot.
Nobody expected it. But nobody backed up. They stood their ground no matter what happened. They believed in their future, in a democratic government, and they were standing their ground, no matter what. This is true heroism. You are talking about civilians and kids. They believed in the future, in freedom in their country, in something good positive. The spirit that moved them in the front lines of Maidan, against the negative forces of their government, and in front of bullets—real bullets, not rubber bullets. The bullets would go through any kind of armor.
Can you say something about the provocateurs sent in to incite violence and give the police an excuse to attack? And the neo-Nazis that infiltrated?
Every government has its own tricks to provoke violence between their forces and protesters. They need to justify the violence so they could allow their internal forces to beat the crowd. These are old tricks that all of us were observing there. It was fascinating to see how the government did this, using criminals to do their jobs. They would take people out of prison, and put these people on the street. It’s all tricks.
The film vividly depicts the birth of a nation during an amazing 93 days. But what would you say to those who argue that the results are much more mixed—that Ukraine after the Maidan is a wounded country?
Otto van Bismark said that the fruits of revolution are usually tasted by the wrong people. In the case of Maidan, he is wrong. Maidan gave birth to a new movement, to a young generation, to heroism, to the real meaning of what it means to be Ukrainian. This is a wounded country; yes, Russia is taking advantage of it. But for me, Maidan won. The people achieved their goal. Now, we have the process of building a new country. It takes time, and the outsiders are trying to make problems, to put brakes on this process of rebuilding. But at the end of the day, Maidan won.