The Movie Putin Doesn’t Want You to See

The documentary ‘Winter on Fire’ captures the Ukrainian uprising in all its brutal, bloody realness.

Arturas Morozovas/Netflix

Continuing their expansion into the world of exclusive content, Netflix is set to premiere a new documentary Friday, yet another step into film festival-approved (and potentially Oscar-friendly) waters.

Russian filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky’s new documentary Winter on Fire chronicles the civilian unrest in Ukraine that led to the resignation of one-time Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich. The conflict mostly took place in one central location in Ukraine’s capital city of Kiev—the Maidan, or Independence Square, in honor of the marches that took place in 1990, at the start of Ukraine’s movement for statehood. Students gathered to peacefully protest their president’s rejection of a proposal to integrate Ukraine into Europe, but as protests grew, the Ukrainian government retaliated with a militarized special police force known as the Berkut.

The standoff between the government and protestors lasted for nearly one hundred days, and it’s this standoff that Winter on Fire depicts.

If the incident only seems vaguely familiar, it’s perhaps because the struggle at the Maidan was not documented in the states with enough regularity to distinguish the incident from the larger state of global unrest that has become inescapable over the last decade. Winter on Fire then is a corrective to global indifference.

Winter on Fire is similar to another Netflix acquisition, The Square, which followed Egyptian protests for two years beginning with the conflict in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The Square was a major success for Netflix—their first film to be nominated for an Oscar—and it’s easy to see why Winter on Fire would inspire comparable hopes.

Afineevsky doesn’t bother much with statistics, besides the title sequence and the markers of the days as they pass. The film’s graphics are limited to maps, which are used to illustrate the action as it happens, and for the most part, we aren’t even introduced to the film’s many witnesses by name. Instead, the witnesses bleed into each other. Their stories become an interconnected whole, the collective remembrance of battle—and we witness the battle too from an ever-shifting, yet somehow unified perspective.

Documentary footage of battle zones is all too common, as we live in a time that marries global instability with unprecedented access to recording technology. But the way that we usually receive that footage is haphazard—a photo tweeted into our newsfeeds, a brief and sanitized mention on CNN, a livestream from a protester on the run in Ferguson.

Films like Winter on Fire offer an opportunity to present conflict in a manner that is streamlined and legible, hopefully simplified in such a way that the chaos of the moment can take on the clarity of hindsight.

We’re caught in tear gas and rocked by stun grenades. We witness a man who is shot and killed just feet away from the camera. We’re on the front line of the barricade as protestors try to physically hold back the charging Berkut. We’re among the streaming columns of Berkut officers, as they disperse into the crowd with their shiny black helmets—resembling nothing so much as a swarm of insects.

The film was executive produced by Angus Wall, the longtime editor for David Fincher’s films, and indeed the movie itself moves with economic and cinematic purpose. This isn’t a documentary filled with purposeful compositions, but the film is edited to give weight to the images we see, from blood on the pavement to combat drills.

Some of this footage is disturbing in its familiarity—it’s hard not to recall the protests at Ferguson as you watch police attack peaceful and unarmed protestors. But the bullets that rain down on the protestors are not the rubber variety. In films like this, there is always temptation to imagine where reality ends and where the artifice of filming begins, but as we watch men killed just a few feet away from the camera, it would be hard for even the most cynical audience to deny the risk the filmmaking team took in documenting the struggle of their compatriots.

It could be a criticism to say that Winter on Fire is not specific about the ideological underpinnings of its conflict—beyond a desire for a stronger allegiance with Europe, we are never really explicitly told what ideals the people are fighting for. But what Winter on Fire does offer is a plunge into the perspective of Ukraine’s citizens—the ones who identify not with the Soviet fall, but with the Ukrainian birth.

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Though the conflict at Maidan was resolved, Ukraine’s struggle for independence is ongoing, and one suspects that it will continue so long as Soviet sympathies persist in Moscow. The release of Winter on Fire is coming at a time of renewed interest in the activities of Eastern Europe, as it has been widely reported this week that Putin has begun bombing the rebel forces in Syria in an attempt to uphold the Russian-friendly Assad regime.

But if Putin’s interference in Syria adds global context to the conflict on the ground in Winter on Fire, those looking for emotional and ideological context might be better off turning to the announcement yesterday from The Nobel Foundation, announcing that this year’s prize for literature would go not to Western favorites like Philip Roth or Joyce Carol Oates, but to a Belarusian non-fiction writer, Svetlana Alexievich.

Despite having spent most of her life in Belarus, Svetlana Alexievich was born in the Ukraine to a Ukrainian mother and a Belarusian father during the time when the boundaries of Ukraine and Belarus were engulfed by the Soviet state. Her work is comprised of thousands of interviews with former citizens of the Soviet Union—a history of feelings, a document of the Soviet and post-Soviet psyche.

Much of Alexeivich’s work remains untranslated, and among her neglected works is a book that in English translates to Enchanted With Death, in which Alexievich records memories of the suicides that occurred after the fall of the Soviet Union. Her work is an archive of the comrades who could not accept the collapse of their ideals, whose vision of life and the future had been shattered by the fall of Communism.

Enchanted With Death, like much of Alexeivich’s work, is a chronicle of despair—and it’s the memory of this same despair that motivates the citizens of Winter on Fire. As we cycle through the activists involved in the Maidan protests, one sentiment comes up again and again: what they became was about more than trade with Europe.

What Ukrainians fight for is the right to envision a future different from the one that belonged to their fathers and grandfathers. In the end, Winter on Fire documents not just a fight for a square, but a fight for a nation’s imagination.