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Winter On Fire Blazes Oscar Trail With Gripping Account Of Ukraine's Maidan Moment

Twelve-year-old Roma Saveliyev is one of the most captivating interviewees in Evgeny Afineevsky's documentary Winter On Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom, which has just been nominated for an Oscar.
Twelve-year-old Roma Saveliyev is one of the most captivating interviewees in Evgeny Afineevsky's documentary Winter On Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom, which has just been nominated for an Oscar.

When a friend in Kyiv called Israeli-American filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky in November 2013 and convinced him to drop everything and take his cameras to Ukraine because "something was happening" there, he had no idea what he was getting himself into, let alone that it would lead to an Oscar nomination.

"Sometimes you need to be crazy, and I think we filmmakers are crazy," he told RFE/RL shortly before the resulting movie, Winter On Fire, was short-listed for an Academy Award for best documentary on January 13. "I came initially for two weeks, and that's how long we planned to be there. But literally after eight, nine days things changed."

Angered at President Viktor Yanukovych's abrupt rejection of stronger ties to the European Union in favor of Russia, tens of thousands of Ukrainians had gathered to vent their frustration on the capital's Maidan square, the site of the Orange Revolution nine years previously.

What started as a peaceful movement quickly spiraled out of control as the authorities became increasingly brutal in their attempts to suppress the unrest and, in turn, antigovernment activists attacked police lines and occupied public buildings. Some three months later Yanukovych had fled into Russian exile, and scores of demonstrators had died in the process.

And Afineevsky was there to film it all, capturing the stories of people from all walks of life who took to the streets to steer Ukraine away from Russian influence.

TRAILER: Winter On Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom

While the gripping story of the Maidan unfolds before their eyes, viewers get to meet enthusiastic activists, wizened soldiers, distressed medics, local pop stars, and even a young Romany boy, who all spend months in atrocious weather facing down police bullets and batons as they fight for sweeping reform and a more westward orientation.

Having originally taken only two cameras to Ukraine, Afineevsky soon realized that he would have to call in reinforcements as events began to evolve rapidly.

"We realized that history was happening here and we started to get more and more filmmakers involved...because the movement was growing so we needed to have more and more eyes on the ground," he says.

Eventually, Afineevsky had 28 cameramen risking life and limb to record in minute detail those tumultuous days from November 2013 to February 2014, when the Yanukovych regime was toppled. They ended up compiling an incredible 15 terabytes of footage that was then supplemented with material from news organizations, including RFE/RL.

Not surprisingly, editing this work proved to be a tortuous process, with Afineevsky and his team feverishly working "day and night" to knock it into shape.

After five long months, they eventually honed their story into a compelling, visually spectacular narrative that has been captivating audiences since the movie was released in October.

One thing that proved crucial to the process was Afineevsky's decision to focus solely on the people on Kyiv's Independence Square and to tell their stories without overburdening audiences with too much background or context. The director did not want to take the audience "out of the Maidan" and he therefore eschewed any detailed explanations of the corruption and political tensions that brought people out onto the streets in the first place.

Evgeny Afineevsky
Evgeny Afineevsky

"I tried to find interesting human stories that could be related to by a lot of people across the globe," Afineevsky says, explaining how he brought together a motley collection of individuals who recount on camera why they decided to unite in their fight for a better Ukraine and spent months in winter weather facing down riot police to do so.

By far the most captivating interviewee is Roma Saveliyev, a 12-year-old boy with a troubled background who leaves home to join the Maidan and comes of age among the barricades, not unlike Gavroche from Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.

His wide-eyed conviction is among the highlights of a film that is fast becoming a runaway success with international audiences, even though not everyone is pleased. Afineevsky, who was born in the U.S.S.R., says a number of Russians have left nasty comments on his Facebook page, but he is not too worried. "You always have haters in this world," he says.

Oscar nomination notwithstanding, some critics have also taken issue with the film's "one-sided" narrative, which omits alternative viewpoints such as those of Ukrainians in the east who are now pushing to secede from the country and move closer to Russia.

Afineevsky gives such reproaches short shrift, however, saying that he is, first and foremost, a filmmaker not a journalist.

He also dismisses claims that he oversimplified the narrative and glossed over some of the Maidan's more unsavory elements, such as the involvement of the nationalist Right Sector movement, which has been accused of fascist leanings. (Afineevsky points out that insignia of the far-right group can be clearly seen on one of the interviewee's clothes.)

In any event, Afineevsky argues, the presence of Right Sector at the Maidan does not detract from the fact that this genuinely popular movement succeeded in bringing down a corrupt regime and effecting change in Ukraine.

"You know what? Right Sector, they actually fought for everything like everybody else. They were a part of these people," he says. "At the end of the day, it was people who came out, who stood for what they believed in, and who achieved [something]."

Since the Maidan, Ukraine has become embroiled in conflict following Moscow's opportunistic annexation of Crimea and the seizure of swaths of Donetsk and Luhansk by Russian-backed separatists in the east. With the country's economy now in tatters as a result, Ukrainians face other obstacles as well.

But Winter On Fire serves as a timely and often poignant reminder of the passion that led many Ukrainians to take a leap of faith on the streets of Kyiv two years ago.

Winter On Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom is available for streaming here.

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