Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom


Ukrainian police fire on unarmed protesters.

Ukrainian police fire on unarmed protesters.

(2015) Documentary (Netflix) Ekaterina Averchenko, Mustafa Ayyem, Maksim Panov, Eduard Kurganskiy, Diana Popova, Aleksandr Staradub, Ivan Sydor, Timur Ibraimov, Cissy Jones (narrator), Kamiliya Zahoor, Said Ismagilov, Vladimir Makarevich, Sergei Kibnuuski, Volodymyr Parasyuk, Aleksandr Pyovanov, Oleksandr Melnyk, Catherine Ashton. Directed by Evgeny Afineevsky

A wise man once said that while it is easy to see when a revolution ends, it is much more difficult to discern when it begins. That wasn’t the case with the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, also called the EuroMaidan revolution or just the Maidan revolution. named for Maidan Nezalezhnosti or Independence Square in central Kiev (the Ukrainian capital) which was the staging ground for most of the events of the uprising. To paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron, this revolution was televised.

After then-president Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign the trade agreement with the European Union that he had promised to sign, journalist Mustafa Ayyem and others sent out messages on Facebook and other social media to gather in Maidan to protest. At first only a few dozen showed, but by the end of the evening there were thousands in the square.

The protesters would remain in Maidan for 93 days amid escalating retaliation from the State Police, or Berkut. went from beatings with truncheons, stun grenades and arrests for disorderly conduct to firing into the crowd with rubber bullets and eventually with live ammo. Backed by convicts and thugs paid by the government called titushky the pro-government forces clashed more and more violently with the anti-government forces which were now calling for Yanukovych to resign, culminating in five days in February which large-scale rioting took place and police brutality rose to sadistic levels.

International outcry was deafening as even the International Monetary Fund suspended activities within the Ukraine due to the unrest. Yanukovych finally resigned and fled the country for Russia, with whom he had been in secret negotiations. His government was toppled and new elections held. As the documentary itself notes, that didn’t end the violence however; Russia would annex the Crimean peninsula and pro-Russian activists in the Eastern Ukraine erupted in a civil war that continues to this day. More than six thousand Ukrainians have been killed in the conflict.

Russian/Israeli docu-journalist Afineevsky was on the ground in the Ukraine for the duration of the uprising and documented it as thoroughly as it can be – 28 cameramen and women were credited on the film and some of the footage appears to have been captured on cell phone cameras as well. The footage is quite frankly amazing; we see hordes of police descending on unarmed protesters and beating the holy crap out of them. We see people shot and literally die in front of our eyes.

What the film doesn’t do is provide any balance. There were incidents of violence involving protesters but these are never shown; we are given a political line here which I don’t think that the filmmakers realized would have been made stronger if we had heard some opposing voices as well. While I’m not trying to say that justification for the violence and brutality should have been provided, one gets the feeling that we’re hearing only one side of the story which makes it maddeningly incomplete.

Still, in presenting that single side the filmmakers are commendably thorough. Graphics illustrate the locations of the various clashes and show the routes of protest marches. The filmmakers also resist the urge that many documentaries in the last few years have followed in padding their films with animated sequences. Every image we see here other than the informational graphics is either live footage of the uprising or interviews with the participants after the fact.

The Ukraine is, surprisingly, one of the most multi-cultural nations on earth with a variety of religions and ethnic groups that live there (there’s a particularly large Muslin/Arabic ethnic population living in Kiev) and religious leaders played a major role in the protest. Time and time again throughout the film the anti-government activists boast that all of the various religions were united as one; we get that this wasn’t a religious conflict but a political one.

There are still some pro-Russian sorts who call this uprising a coup d’état rather than a true popular uprising (only about 40% of Ukrainians supported the protesters according to contemporary polls). However, there is no doubt that Yanukovych was entirely corrupt as was his administration and once he began ordering his police to fire on his own people with live ammunition he lost what little moral authority he might have had to begin with.

If this is a propaganda piece as it strongly feels like it is, it is an entirely effective one. There is no doubting the courage of the protesters standing up to armed and armored police officers while completely unarmed, an eerie foreshadowing of police militarization in our own country which thankfully hasn’t led to the kind of violence that we saw in Kiev. 75 people died during the uprising, mostly protesters. Yanukovych is now wanted internationally in connection with the police actions and for allegedly having looted more than $75 billion from the Ukrainian treasury.

Watching the images of the beatings and the shootings is absolutely heartbreaking at times – but inspiring throughout. I’m half-Ukrainian so I do have a bit of a dog in this hunt and I have to say that I have never been prouder of my heritage than I was during the extraordinary events of these 93 days in the winter of 2013-14. While the story is far from being over, it is a story that is worth telling. I just wish they’d told both sides of it.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible footage. Thorough presentation of the anti-Yanukovych point of view. Easy to follow and understand.
REASONS TO STAY: Extremely one-sided point of view.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence, profanity and some disturbing images of injuries and corpses.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gujarat, the Indian state that Vasant and Champa Patel were from, also was the home state of Gandhi.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Square
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: 99 Homes

Advertisements

Night of the Living Dead (1968)


They're coming to get you, Barbara!

They’re coming to get you, Barbara!

(1968) Horror Action (Walter Reade Organization) Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley, Kyra Schon, Charles Craig, Bill Hinzman, George Kosana, Russell Streiner, Frank Doak, Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille, A.C. McDonald, Samuel R. Solito, Mark Ricci, Lee Hartman, Jack Givens, Paula Richards, Vince Suvinski. Directed by George A. Romero

6 Days of Darkness 2013

Less is often more, particularly when it comes to excellent filmmaking. In fact, in the world of independent films, less is often all you get. For some classic films, that turns out to be serendipity of the most wonderful kind.

Barbara (O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Streiner) are at the cemetery one somewhat chilly spring day to visit their father’s grave on the anniversary of his death. Barbara is a bit discomfited and Johnny teases her that “they’re coming to get you Barbara” in a not-bad Boris Karloff impression. Then indeed, they are coming to get her as a reanimated corpse (Hinzman) attacks her. Johnny saves her but accidentally falls during the struggle, hits his head on a gravestone and is instantly killed.

Panicking, Barbara runs to an old farm house with a gas pump outside it. She is followed by dozens of the ghouls (the word “zombies” is never uttered during the film) and runs inside, only to find a woman’s mangled corpse. Once again panicking, she runs outside only to be stopped by Ben (Jones) who pulls up in his car which is running out of gas. He ushers her back inside and fights the walking dead off, barricading the doors and windows.

In the cellar they find Harry (Hardman) and Helen (Eastman) Cooper and their daughter Karen (Schon). They are hiding there after their car was overturned by a horde of the undead. Karen is gravely ill, having been bitten on the arm by one of them. Also in the cellar is teenage couple Tom (Wayne) and Judy (Ridley) who sought shelter after hearing an Emergency Broadcast urging people to get inside.

Immediately a struggle for power ensues between Ben and Harry. Harry wants everyone in the cellar but Ben knows it’s a deathtrap – there’s only one way in or out and once down there, they are committed to a last stand. The group hears reports of an infestation of the dead rising throughout the eastern half of the United States. Shelters have been set up throughout the state of Pennsylvania in the greater Pittsburgh area. Tom and Ben know their only chance is to get to one but Ben’s truck doesn’t have enough gas to make it. Meanwhile the dead outside have grown into a horde surrounding the farmhouse.

This is as DIY a movie as you are ever likely to find. Romero, who had begun his career shooting commercials and local TV programs including several vignettes for the popular children’s show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood knew little about making a feature film but went at it with the gusto of youth. Enlisting local actors and friends to play zombies, the movie has an unparalleled creep factor and was unlike any horror movie seen before and in some ways, since.

This was one of the first movies to show zombies eating people. The distinctive shuffling gait of the walking dead was first seen here. Many of the conventions of modern zombie movies were established by this one. While it is fairly tame by modern standards in terms of gore, in its time it was truly shocking.

Another shocking element was having an African-American as the heroic lead. That was rarely done in the movies outside of Sidney Poitier and never in a horror movie. Jones, an erudite scholar who studied at the Sorbonne and acted professionally in New York City, made for a good one – strong and iron-willed. When he slapped a hysterical Barbara across the face, audiences surely must have recoiled in amazement – a black man hitting a white woman? Positively indecent! Ironically enough, the movie was released a week after the assassination of Martin Luther King, to give you a sense of the timeline involved.

Sure, by today’s standards the movie is pretty crude but the storytelling is not. In fact, the movie is even now pretty gripping, particularly if you haven’t seen it before (and if you haven’t, what kind of rock have you been hiding under?) and for those who have, it never fails to keep one on the edge of their seat.

The film famously fell into public domain nearly immediately upon release because the filmmakers naively didn’t know to put the copyright statement at the film’s conclusion, so Romero and his partners saw little profit from the movie which has generated tens and maybe hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, mainly for other people. A documentary on the film, Year of the Living Dead screened this past April at the Florida Film Festival and gives some insight into the making of the film and its impact on popular culture.

There is really no underestimating the role of this little movie from Pittsburgh has had on horror films and popular culture in general. In many ways, the modern independent film industry sprang from pioneers like Romero. Watching the movie now, we see that it is certainly a product of its times not just technologically speaking but also in terms of the movie itself; whether consciously or not, it examines racial tensions of its time and nuclear fears as well. It’s surprisingly well-written and if there are some areas where the script dates itself, it nonetheless remains a timeless classic. Anyone who loves horror movies needs to see this one and not just once – regular viewings are recommended and I’m not talking about the Rifftrax abomination that showed recently in theaters but the original. This is the ultimate zombie movie and should be treated with the reverence as such.

WHY RENT THIS: A classic that essentially re-defined the zombie film. Startlingly poignant and intelligent.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Crude by modern standards.

FAMILY VALUES:  Violence, disturbing images, adult themes and some brief nudity. Even 45 years on this is still not for the kiddies.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As was common with black and white films, Bosco chocolate syrup was used as blood.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Because the movie fell into the public domain, there are myriad home video versions out there, mostly made from inferior prints and with few or no extras so for our purposes we’ll concentrate on the higher end home video releases. The 1999 Special Collector’s Edition has a comedic short Night of the Living Bread as well as examples of Romero’s early commercial and TV work for Image Ten. The 2002 Millennium Edition however remains to date the standard – in addition to what was mentioned, there are liner notes from Stephen King, clips from lost Romero films The Derlick and There’s Always Vanilla, the original treatment and script for the film, an audio interview with the late Duane Jones and scrapbook photos from cast and crew members. To my knowledge, no credible Blu-Ray version exists of the film to date but hopefully as we approach the 50th anniversary of the film someone will make an effort to do it justice.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.8M on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blair Witch Project

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Transporter