The champagne will be on ice for Netflix’s doc team this year, as their two runs at Oscar both made the nominees list: Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone? and Evgeny Afineevsky’s Winter on Fire. For Afineevsky, it means trading the hostile conditions of the Maidan revolution in Ukraine in 2013/14 for the red carpet of the Dolby Theater — a journey that has required many hours of toil to put his picture together. The revolution led to the exile of president Viktor Yanukovych, after a bitter stand-off between police and protesters. With the help of 28 cinematographers on the ground, the film gets up-close-and-personal with the brutal regime that caused more than 100 deaths. Here, Afineevsky details how a peaceful protest turned into a devastating fight.
What prompted the trip to Ukraine to document this uprising?
I was working with one of my friends who’d been involved in my previous movie, Divorce: A Journey Through the Kids’ Eyes, and he called me from Ukraine and said, “Evgeny, you need to come down. History is happening here. We need to document this.” Filmmakers like me, we don’t often think about our lives, so I jumped on a plane, came down and it was a peaceful, fun festival of young people who came out and wanted to be heard about their intent to be a part of the European Union. We started to film, and then a couple of days later they got beaten at 4 o’clock in the morning. All of a sudden, my plan to spend two weeks was thrown away and I started hiring more people to document what was happening. We ended up with 28 cinematographers – professionals and amateurs – who were capturing these events. Six months flew like nothing, and I was too busy documenting to worry about the bullets flying over my head or the batons coming down.
In the film, it feels like as the police tried to crack down on this demonstration, the resolve from people only got stronger.
Yes, that was exactly what happened. From the beginning, nobody was expecting this to happen. All of a sudden, people were getting beaten and kidnapped. People gave their lives for this amazing movement, and it was moving to see all this bravery and patriotism. It was spontaneous and so fast, the pace it was unfolding. I’d never seen unity like this – young and old and different social classes and nationalities. Serhiy Nigoyan, who gave his life, he was Armenian; all nationalities and religions were there to achieve these common goals.
Beyond the politics, was it always a story about people, for you?
Absolutely. The human stories behind the headlines are the important thing. I wasn’t aiming to do a story about the politics. From the beginning, I wanted to tell a story about their bravery and unity. It sparked me. It’s not about politics and politicians; it’s about human dignity. It’s about humanity. Despite all the weather and the harsh conditions, and despite the police batons and bullets, the people were dancing and singing. Music was filling their hearts, and you can see all the concerts they had. Humanity had a huge presence there. In January, when the government passed these horrible laws in Ukraine, what happened? The people had spirit and made a joke of the laws. Wearing kitchen pots on their heads instead of helmets. For me, all of this struck me and I felt an obligation to bring it out in the film.
You ended up with thousands of hours of footage. How did you know when to stop shooting, and then, how to bring all this footage together?
I had an organic stop to the chapter I was documenting. My story started in November 2013, and organically ended at the end of February 2014 when Maidan, as a movement, achieved their goal. I started to work on the first cut, and it took me five months to put it together. I had the help of amazing mentors like John Battsek, Angus Wall and David Dinerstein. With their guidance, I was able to make it for the right audience. Since being there, and going through every inch of this square, a lot of elements felt obvious to me, but they wouldn’t be so obvious to the audience I was trying to reach.
It seems crazy to talk about fiction when you’re dealing in truth, but you were documenting a student uprising and makeshift barricades, and you found this wonderful, spirited 12-year-old boy who was right at the center of this event. Was the similarity to Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables something that struck you? Was he your Gavroche?
I love the musical of Les Mis. [laughs] For me, his character was absolutely the Gavroche of this Ukrainian revolution. What struck me again and again was that this is the new generation of people. When you’re watching Les Mis, it’s a beautiful story that plays on stage and in the book, but here I was dealing with real people and real lives. I revisited this boy many times, and what struck me was how he matured from the beginning to the end, and how he was growing through these 93 days of Maidan. He became an adult by the end, and his maturity levels grew every day. This small kid was already an old soul. To find a 12-year-old child who was so motivated to give his life for the future of his country… He is an amazing role model for the young people of the world.
The film has played in more than 50 countries through Netflix. What does this avenue of distribution offer documentary makers?
I’m so grateful having Netflix on board, and allowing me to share my story with the world. It just means that as a filmmaker I can get this story to more and more hearts and souls across the globe. It’s a blessing being a part of the Netflix family. For me it’s very important that my movie isn’t just struggling for distribution, but from the moment I finish it, being able to deliver it to millions and millions of subscribers. And they allowed me my freedom of speech. None of them, when I was finishing the movie, told me what to do or how to do it. I was allowed to finish the movie and they liked every step I was doing. I never had any resistance from their side.
To see the trailer for Winter on Fire, click play below: