It’s blood in the streets in this arresting and immediate documentary portrait of the Maidan protests in Kiev that, in the winter of 2014, forced Viktor Yanukovych, then president of the Ukraine, to flee to Russia. Yanukovych had once before been booted from the presidency — in 2004, the Ukrainian supreme court determined that his recent election had been fraudulent.
This time it was months of protests in the capital that sent him packing, but only after his Berkut security forces assaulted the citizenry with stun grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets, ultimately killing 125 people. The uprising of thousands at first targeted Yanukovych for his refusal to follow through on plans to bring Ukraine closer to the European Union, but the crackdown of his troops inspired such outrage that the crowds swelled. As one man explains to one of director Evgeny Afineevsky’s cameras, “At this point it’s not even about European integration anymore — people just want to live in freedom.”
Afineevsky and his crew nose their cameras alarmingly close to the action as the truncheons swing but also as the people fight back, lobbing rocks or pressing into the authorities from behind improvised riot shields. Most of the footage here is of life in Maidan Square during this hardest of winters. Afineevsky takes us into makeshift hospitals, shows us protesters shouting “Come to the side of your nation!” at soldiers in riot gear, and offers several hard-to-shake images: protesters building barricades; the bell-ringer at a monastery ringing every bell in alarm for what he says is the first time since 1240; a man whose face is streaked with gore standing straight, still, and silent against a tree.
Looming over all of this moving, visceral footage are the tragedies to come after Yanukovych is gone and Putin feels he’s got something to prove. Winter on Fire‘s thrilling rebellion is neither the beginning nor the end, but it is at least a truly heartening middle.
Winter on Fire
Directed by Evgeny Afineevsky
Opens October 9, IFC Center