Documenting the Rebirth of Ukraine

The making of Oscar-nominated ‘Winter On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom’

Do something for the revolution.

I’m filming.

This is the Ukrainian Revolution. It’s fun.

They’re shooting over there! Don’t go there!

Don’t go there! They’re shooting over there!

There, he fell.

I was just dragging a dead body.I stepped in blood.

You can’t surprise me with anything.

You thought it would be easy, just go to Maidan, hang out a little and then go back?

Not me. I always wanted to be on the front lines.

That’s it. He’s dead…

Dmytro (16 years old) on Institutskaya street

This interview with Dmytro, who at that moment was 16 years old, we shot on February 20, 2014. Exactly two years ago from today, in the heart of city Kyiv, in the middle of Europe. The real bullets flew over your head hunting for the pure souls participating in the cause on that day. It felt like a Russian roulette — simple luck while being chased by a bullet that doesn’t care if you are a protester or a doctor, a journalist or a priest, an enthusiastic youngster or an elderly man. This was one of my interviews, born spontaneously in the middle of the mass shooting theatre, where the level of emotions, courage, verity and human spirit was so high and strong that one would commit a crime leaving it undocumented. This is where my movie and my story starts. Winter on Fire starts with idealistic demonstrations of young European optimists in late November and leads us through the most difficult and darkest days of February 18, 19, and 20, 2014. Side by side on the front lines with people, some of whom are no longer with us, we documented these 93 days of “the Revolution of Dignity.”

It was later that I was struck by the fact that on February 20, 2014, when most of the brutal killings of unarmed protesters had happened, the largest number of babies were born in Kyiv on that same day. Is it reincarnation, or just an amazing story of pure souls coming back to us right away? Whatever one can think, I believe the history that we were capturing had a huge impact not only on the Ukrainian society but also on the world.

Hope for change brought millions of people to the central streets of Kyiv, and throughout those 93 days, it transformed the country into a new young, but mature nation, which has realized the power of the people’s will. The real power of togetherness. People paid a high price, but they never gave up their beliefs, and they won their battle! All together, all for one and one for all. Chapter one was sealed by the victory, but it was only the beginning for the newborn nation. As for me, those 93 days became a great lesson of re-evaluation of life values, human dignity, solidarity, respect among all religious confessions, humanity, and, above all — unity.

I’ve been to Ukraine many times since 2004, when the Orange Revolution happened, but this time, when I arrived in November 2013, it was a different nature of the movement. Ukrainian youth came out to the Independence Square “Maidan Nezaleznosti” in the capital of Kyiv to have their voices heard. These were the people, simple and non-political, happy to be who they are, but completely unhappy with the government’s decisions and its future perspectives for the Ukrainian state. This colorful festival of non-partisan young voices, dreaming about being a part of the European community, was far from a typical political demonstration. But still it was the birth of a peaceful movement against a decision of President Viktor Yanukovych, who declined a signature of the Association with the European Union.

Evgeny Afineevsky filming on Maidan Square

I didn’t know what I was going to get when I started to film the events. I was still questioning myself on where it would lead me. It was even hard to imagine that this happy colorful youth festival would morph into a full-fledged revolution calling for the resignation of the nation’s president. With events unfolding so spontaneously and so much happening each day, on day 10 I had already found myself in the middle of history. It was happening in front of my eyes, and my team and myself were capturing as much as we could as the story unfolded around us every second. Shooting inside a true battlefield, we were able to capture the remarkable mobilization of nearly a million citizens from across the country protesting against the corrupt political regime that suppressed demands and freedoms of its own people. Despite bruises, concussions, and injuries that I and my team suffered during these 93 days and nights of the events, the determination and unity of the people around me still gave me a sense of safety. Their unity, humanity, and bravery inspired me to stay there and document their story for the world. I was witnessing something unique and extraordinary, and to leave these people who gave me — an outsider — a sense of family was a crime.

The tremendous unity between people of all backgrounds, religions and faiths was a cornerstone that helped them collectively stand their ground and achieve their goal. This unity proved that people of disparate faiths, backgrounds, and nationalities have the ability to respect each other and fight for a common cause side by side.

Of course, at the beginning of the events, none of us were thinking that the brutality and sacrifice would be so rampant. None of us thought of the thousands who would be injured and more than one hundred people who would be killed during this saga.

President Petro Poroshenko and Evgeny Afineevsky with the Medal of Cross of Ivan Mazepa

Looking back to these two years of hard work filled with emotions and adrenalin, I have never felt so speechless and proud as when Winter on Fire was chosen to mark the second anniversary of the Revolution of Dignity and I was awarded with the Medal of Cross of Ivan Mazepa by President Petro Poroshenko on behalf of the nation. This was a national tribute to all the hard labor we went through to document this history. It was a true recognition of the movie’s value as a historical document, which I created with my brave and fearless team while we endured the freezing weather and tear gas and were under police batons and real bullets.

On a world tour with the movie I learned that the events in Maidan mirror many different historical events across the globe from the French Revolution to the Arab Spring, from the American fight for independence to the fall of the Berlin Wall, from Polish Solidarnosc and the Czech Velvet Revolution to Lithuanian events in January 1991. All different, but very similar at the same time. To me as an American citizen, this Revolution of Dignity mirrors what the Founding Fathers of the United States of America fought for in order to establish our free and democratic society. It makes Winter on Fire carry an important historical value not only for the Ukrainian and European world, but also for the American society at large. Giving a chance to a new generation to reassert the real price of freedom and democracy, to learn from the past and build the future.

I want to share a sentence, which I heard many times from every second person I’ve encountered with this movie and which, in a way, summarizes all our efforts. I think it is also relevant to any place in the world:

“Every president in the world, every leader, every high or low-level representative of a state or lawmaker should keep this movie on their table and watch it over and over again, as a reminder, that he needs to serve and that his people, who put their trust in him, are the real power.”

P.S. Ukrainian Magazine “Buro247” named Winter on Fire — “Movie of the year,” while at the same time Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called our movie on Facebook “his favorite” and asked everybody to watch it, once again recognizing that what was done has a tremendous historic and cultural value for the nation, and that the entire nation is grateful for that.

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