Thursday, November 05, 2015


Netflix appears to be cornering the market on documentaries chronicling people's revolutions around the globe. Following up on Jehane Noujaim's The Square (2013)—which took us into the heart of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution at Tahrir Square—their latest immersive documentary is Evgeny Afineevsky's Winter On Fire: Ukraine's Fight For Freedom (2015), which debuted on Friday, October 9, 2015, both as a DVD rental and on Netflix streaming. I was fortunate enough, however, to watch Winter On Fire as a For Your Consideration (FYC) screening with director Afineevsky present to interact with his audience. An additional public screening has opened the San Francisco Film Society's Fall Season with their newly-launched Doc Stories.

Over 93 days from November 2013 into February 2014, Ukranians placed their bodies on hostile front lines to wrest back their freedom and human dignity from the repressive regime of President Viktor Yanukovych who—in cahoots with Russia's Vladimir Putin—deliberately violated the will of the people, reneging on negotiations to join the E.U. in a backhanded attempt to hand Ukraine back to Russia. Peaceful protests erupted into searing carnage and—with a team of over 25 cinematographers—Evgeny Afineevsky coordinated a blow-for-blow account of events, clarified by effective graphics that map out the key moments of the revolution by demarcating its geopolitical locale, street by street, institution by institution.

What strikes me most about Afineevsky's chronicle is its precarious balance between objective observation and emotional manipulation. He broke my heart (through the adagio-like refrains of Jasha Klebe's plaintive score) at the same time that he enraged my heart with his footage of atrocities beyond imagination. The mix is a powerful witness of history in the making.

Some might argue that the documentary fails to provide a contextual political analysis of events, but I accept Afineevsky's assertion that his goal was never to create a piece of agitprop, but more to pursue the most ancient of themes: that of the humanity of man in timeless struggle with the inhumanity of man. Watching masses of people press against each other to hold the line of dignity is unforgettable and—in our country, weakened by a lack of political will—a searing reminder of what is possible when people have had enough.

This transcript is cobbled together from the Q&A session following the FYC screening. The questions have been rephrased for conversational flow.

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Q: Can you speak to the genesis of this project? And to whatever internal tensions there might have been during the Euromaidan protest?

Evgeny Afineevsky: Den Tolmor, who is my business partner, phoned me and said, "Evgeny, come to Maidan; there's something happening here." This movement was different than the Orange Revolution that happened in 2004, which was a politically-created strike movement. I came to Maidan for two weeks and ended up staying for six months. It was a long journey. More and more people came to the square to join in the protest. As you can see in my film, more than a million people were there. So I can't say that there were internal tensions because the unity of the people blew my mind: all religious groups, all ages, all social classes. I saw ladies parking their cars a block from the square and walking into the tents in high heels to offer coffee and sandwiches. It was amazing to see the unity of people from the rich, social class with the poor, social class. All together they were fighting for one goal.

Another thing that blew my mind was that the religious authorities were on the side of the people. Usually religion is on the side of government and becomes an instrument to manipulate people. Not at Maidan. If there were any internal tensions, they were between the opposition parties who wanted to join the forces and become the leaders, and the people who were already self-organized. The people had the power, which is the interesting thing that this documentary presents: people are the real power. They gathered in Maidan. They stood their ground. As a filmmaker, to observe this from the side and to be able to capture it, proved for me that people were the real power.

Q: How did you coordinate all the footage?

Afineevsky: When I arrived to Maidan and the events started to unfold, with people first being kidnapped, and then killed, this was something no one expected. The movement started to grow, more and more people started to join, and more professionals started to shoot what was going on. I was already there and circulating and my team was also growing. The people knew that I wanted to tell their story, so more and more professionals came to me to share their footage. They knew that what was happening in Maidan was a historical moment. They wanted to share these incredible images they were capturing under bullet fire. We all joined forces. It's just another example of the unity, which is the presiding message of this movie: when people unite together, they can create something. As more professionals joined forces, we were able to create more powerful stories. I was able to capitalize on the willingness of these professional photographers and filmmakers who wanted to share their footage to tell this story. They all became part of my team by the end. They were using everything from Go-Pro cameras to cell phones, DSLRs to iPads. We used every possible resource we had to capture this story. We even used a couple of drones, which were shot down. We were trying to capture every second, every moment, because we didn't know what was happening here or there. So everyone was shooting. I could only have dreamed of such collaboration.

The beauty of this story is its humanity. It's technically a human story behind the headlines. What was beautiful was that every night we had a concert. On the stage people were singing all the time, bringing culture to this political event. I wanted to show this cultural element because it reflected the humanity. When the government released its draconian laws, the people kept their sense of humor. They knew to laugh at these draconian laws. One humorous situation that I observed but that, unfortunately, no one captured on film was when—a day after these laws were released—a group of Ukrainians undressed themselves in the freezing weather, threw themselves on the barricades, and taunted the police: "You will not take us naked!!" This was the irreverent spirit that was running throughout the square.

A couple of years ago I met Jasha Klebe. He composed some music for the film Captain Phillips and for The Dark Knight. As a filmmaker, I felt blessed to have young individuals like Jasha on my team. Also Will Znidaric, this editor who I've been working with for the last two and a half months finishing the edit, and Jasha who was scoring the film.

Q: You have a lot of footage from behind police lines. How was that coordinated? And was there any attempt on the part of the police to interfere with your filming?

Afineevsky: First of all, I was international press. A press badge was created for me, which served as protection because it identified me as a foreigner. Even though I speak Russian, I was identified as a foreigner. I had other professional friends who were also international press and who were also able to capture events from different angles. As I said earlier, this film is the labor of a huge team.

Q: How do you differentiate Winter on Fire from The Square?

Afineevsky: The Square was more political. With Winter on Fire I tried to stay away from politics, because my main story was about the people. I was fascinated by these people. I didn't want to get close to any political side and sometimes couldn't. I went to the police to hear their side but they wouldn't comment because they weren't allowed to talk to cameras. As for politicians, if you ask them a question they give you an answer about their entire political party, trying to advertise themselves and how great they are. That's not a human story.

Q: Was there any discussion among your photographers and cinematographers about when to put down the camera and step in to offer humanitarian assistance and help the wounded? Did you ever question being an observer and not a participant?

Afineevsky: There were medical professionals in Maidan. As a filmmaker, I had medics around me all the time, just as we had hundreds of cameras around all the time. These were people who were committed to capturing events as they unfolded. But, again, there were medics around at all times to tend to the wounded. I know how painful it is to watch people being shot, and even some of my cameramen were injured, but there were medics there to take care of them. Our responsibility as filmmakers was to document the situation, just as the medics had their job.

Q: Do you feel safe returning to Russia? Will there be consequences for you having made this documentary?

Afineevsky: You know what? I'm not feeling safe. From the beginning when I arrived at Maidan I knew that my cell phone conversations were being listened to. All of my voicemails, messages and texts were arriving at my phone once a day so I could tell that someone was checking them before releasing them. But I am an American, even though I am of Russian heritage, and I have no immediate plans to return to Russia. As an American filmmaker, I exercise my freedom of speech, but I stay far from Russian soil. Hopefully at some point this situation will be better, but right now I know I would be in danger if I returned to Russia.

Q: Have you shown Winter on Fire in Ukraine? If so, how have they reacted? If not, do you plan to?

Afineevsky: I haven't yet screened Winter on Fire in Ukraine. Right now I am promoting the film in the U.S. We plan to show it there in February of next year on the anniversary of the end of the protest. Their American ambassador has already contacted me and he also is thinking of February. I do know that Ukraine is grateful for the film and those who were on my team and have seen it have all loved it. We did have a screening in Washington, D.C. for delegates from the Ukranian government and the reception was exceptional. It's been amazing to receive recognition from the heads of Ukraine. Ukranians are waiting for this movie because they want the film to serve as a reminder to their government that they, the people, are in power. They want to remind their officials that they are chosen as representatives of the people. Those in government remember how this movement started in Maidan, and the Ukranian people want them to remember.

Q: When you went to Maidan, did you already know that Netflix would pick up your film? Had that been negotiated beforehand?

Afineevsky: When I was in Maidan, I was already trying to sell the rough cut. When I assembled what was the partial rough cut—which is completely different than what the film is now—I sent it to my friend Lati Grobman who shared it with John Battsek, an amazing documentary filmmaker and one of my mentors. John and Lati showed it to Netflix who had a lot of questions. All of them asked me to come back to the United States to continue the final assembly of the movie here. John contacted Angus Wall, who had been a producer for Errol Morris's movies as well as an editor for David Fincher. Angus offered to help us reshape the footage to reach the widest audience. By then, we were all talking to Netflix to create the final product.

Michael Guillén: As you were saying, humanity is such an important focus in your truly brilliant documentary. I was particularly horrified by the inhumanity of the Berkut and the Titushky. I found their actions insufferable. I'm curious, after the events in Maidan, how did they re-enter the society? Do you have a sense of what their role is now in Ukraine?

Afineevsky: Most of the Berkut went to Crimea, which—as you know—is under the Russian government. So most of them are there now. Some of them who stayed in Ukraine underwent investigation but most of them immediately fled to Crimea.

Guillén: And, similarly, what happened to the Titushky?

Afineevsky: I can't tell you because all of them disappeared.

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