'Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom': Venice Review

Winter on Fire Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Unkrainian rebels speak and fight in this effective piece of agitprop.

Vivid documentary footage chronicles the 2013-14 rebellion against Ukraine's pro-Russian government.

As more hot spots in the world erupt, documentaries are there to chronicle the turmoil. Winter on Fire, which has its world premiere in Venice, will be of special interest to European audiences, but Netflix is betting that Americans will also respond to the urgency in director Evgeny Afineevsky’s film about recent rebellion in Ukraine. Although the film might have benefited from a deeper investigation of the background to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the vivid scenes of protest in the capital city of Kiev supply undeniable power.

Afineevsky and his crew were on the front lines when protestors began to demonstrate against the regime of prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, who had close ties with Vladimir Putin and seemed determined to sabotage Ukraine’s desire to join the European Union. For the next three months (from November 2013 to February 2014), these protests grew to hundreds of thousands of demonstrators on the city’s Maidan Square. Government forces responded first with billy clubs and then with bullets, but the protestors refused to abandon the streets. Finally Yanukovych was forced to flee the country.

Of course that was not quite the end of the story. Tensions continue to simmer as pro-Russian forces battle with other Ukrainians.  But the film ends on a satisfying moment of victory as a populist movement toppled a repressive regime.

Afineevsky found a variety of witnesses, including student activists, journalists, laborers, artists and clergy, who all add sharp voices to the collage. One of the most engaging of these interviewees is a 12-year-old boy who offers a remarkably unjaundiced view of the turmoil. A large team of cinematographers caught the massive street demonstrations played out against striking winter backdrops.

The editing is fairly tight, but the film does grow repetitive, partly because it provides so little historical context or a larger overview of how the growing authoritarianism of Putin’s Russia is affecting this part of the world. Yet there are unmistakably moving moments that convey the brutality of the government’s response to an authentic popular movement. Throughout the film, Jasha Klebe’s haunting musical score underscores moments of loss as well as triumph.

Whatever this film’s limitations as comprehensive history, it certainly achieves visceral impact in epic scenes of mass protest that might have pleased the eye of David Lean.

Director: Evgeny Afineevsky

Screenwriter: Den Tolmor

Producers: Evgeny Afineevsky, Den Tolmor

Executive producers: John Battsek, Lati Grobman, Christa Campbell, Adam Del Deo, Lisa Nishimura, Angus Wall, David Dinerstein, Andrew Ruhemann, Dennis L. Kogod, Nadine Khapsalls Kogod, Bohdan Batruch

Editor: Will Znidaric

Music: Jasha Klebe

No rating, 102 minutes