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

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The Son of the Olive Merchant (Le fils du marchand d’olives)


A cross-eyed sheep in wolf's clothing.

A cross-eyed sheep in wolf’s clothing.

(2011) Documentary (Choices Video) Anna Zeitindjioglou, Mathieu Zeitindjioglou, Jean-Claude Dreyfus (narrator). Directed by Mathieu Zeitindjioglou

It is said that history is written by the victorious. It is certainly not written by the victims. In 1915-16 during the height of the First World War, Turkey embarked on a relocation program of its Armenian minority program. According to Turkish history, many Armenians died during this relocation although the Turkish government hadn’t intended them to do so. Some of the Armenians had allied themselves with Russia and carried out terrorist attacks which necessitated getting rid of the snake at their bosom so to speak.

The rest of the world sees things quite differently. Not so much a relocation as a genocide, in fact, the first of the 20th century (and sadly not the last). Somewhere between a million and a million and a half Armenians died during an 18 month period. Eyewitness accounts have all manner of atrocities being committed – sexual assaults, children being burned alive, boatloads of refugees sailed into the Mediterranean and then the boats capsized or sunk. The town of Ani, once a beautiful capital of the region, was literally razed to the ground as were many other villages and towns.

French filmmaker Mathieu Zeitindjioglou now living in Paris has his roots here. His name was changed from the original Zeitounjian to Zeitindjioglou – they have the same meaning in Armenian as in Turkish. His ancestor managed to escape to France because authorities thought he was a Turk.

After marrying Anna, a vivacious Pole, he is convinced to visit Turkey for their honeymoon and get a sense of his homeland today. One gets the sense Mathieu was a bit reluctant to do so; throughout the film he is behind the camera and rarely a participant directly in the proceedings. Frankly, I think the movie would have benefitted from his insights; how he felt about seeing these places where his ancestors once called home.. We are left with Anna’s descriptions of his eyes as the only clues.

Anna drives the film; she relentlessly questions Turks about the genocide, which in Turkey is not recognized as such. Museums contain sections that are revisionist, blaming the whole thing on the Armenians themselves. Questions to ordinary Turks on the street gets either ignorance that the event took place at all, or a kind of “well they did far worse to us” attitude. Anna is also present at conferences in which Turkish diplomats make their case to join the European Union; not everyone in Europe was in favor of this because of the country’s revisionist stance and refusal to at least acknowledge that the policy was of deliberate obliteration of all Armenian presence in their country. Although that happened nearly a century ago, I can kind of see their point. Imagine if Germany today made it official state policy that the Holocaust never occurred.

The interviews in Turkey are for the most part shot guerrilla style on a small camera, so at times the camera remains far too static and the interviews themselves can be repetitive. The film is fairly short so I suppose that reinforcing the main point with five or six different subjects saying the same things is useful. It also should be noted that it is illegal in Turkey to go on record saying that the Armenian genocide took place so some of the interview subjects may well have not wanted to go on the record saying that it did and risk arrest, which of course the filmmakers also did so one must give them both appropriate marks for their courage.

Interspersed in the interviews are animated sequences using a wolf-boy allegory to depict Mathieu’s journey. The animations are uniformly well done and seem to be the closest thing we get into Mathieu’s mindset. These are narrated by Dreyfus in a fine stentorian voice and had some of my favorite moments in the film.

At times I got the sense that the filmmaker was floundering a bit in trying to make his point but that can be overlooked because of the quality of the animation as well as the archival photographs and film that Zeitindjioglou utilizes throughout. If the images look a bit too uncomfortably close to those from Auschwitz and Rwanda one shouldn’t be surprised. After all, atrocities transcend time and place and inhumanity and brutality is no different in Ankara in 1915 as they do in Warsaw in 1938 and Kigali in 1994.

The movie is available on Amazon and on VOD. While it isn’t playing the festival circuit any longer, it is worth seeking out. Most Americans are ignorant that the genocide took place at all (unless you happen to be of Armenian descent) and this is a good opportunity to learn something while accompanying the Zeitindjioglous on their journey.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting and well-done animations. Informative about a genocide few Americans know much about.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks direct personal insight. Wanders aimlessly at times. Interviews are occasionally repetitive.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images, some bad language and mature themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie gets its name from the filmmaker’s last name which is translated from Turkish as “Son of the Olive Seller.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/13 the film has yet to be receive scores on either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sarah’s Key

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Godfather Part II

Police, Adjective (Politist, adjectiv)


Police, Adjective

Apparently Ion Stoica didn't get the direction for everyone to face the window, or he's just a maverick at heart.

(2009) Comedy (IFC) Dragos Bucur, Vlad Ivanov, Irina Saulescu, Ion Stoica, Marian Ghenea, Cosmin Selesi, George Remes, Dan Cogalniceanu, Serban Georgevici, Alexandru Sabadac. Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu

When confronted by conscience, the expression of our actions can sometimes be as important as the actions themselves. It is not only important to do the right thing, it is also important to express why the thing you’re doing is right.

Cristi (Bucur) is a cop in the provincial Romanian city of Vaslui. He has been given orders to keep an eye on a young teenager who smokes hashish with his friends on a daily basis; one of them has snitched on the teen, claiming that he has been supplying them with dope. It is a dreary and boring job as Cristi spends hours just watching the teens smoke.

His wife Anca (Saulescu) is a schoolteacher who is a bit stuffy about grammar and syntax. The two debate the literary interpretation of an inane Romanian pop song one evening after dinner; the wife listens to the song over and over again obsessively while Cristi’s nature is to analyze what the song means, but in a more rational matter; he doesn’t have a lot of room in his world for interpretation.

But apparently this conversation opens his eyes to the idea that he does have room, and he begins to make it when it comes to the teenager. If Cristi arrests him, the boy will be put in jail for a minimum of five years and more likely eight. The boy’s life and future will be utterly ruined. To further complicate matters, Cristi strongly suspects that the law governing this misdemeanor will be changed a few years down the road when Romania joins the European Union. He also believes that the teenager was snitched on so that the informant could make a move on the boy’s girlfriend. There seems to be a great deal of injustice happening in this small, insignificant crime.

When Cristi’s superior officer, Anghelache (Ivanov) pressures him for an arrest, Cristi flat-out refuses to arrest the boy. He simply doesn’t want the ruining of the boy’s life on his conscience. Anghelache, a somewhat fatherly figure, doesn’t hesitate. Out comes the dictionary in a scene that is at once gripping and droll as the two debate the meanings of words like “police” and “conscience.”

I know this all sounds a bit cerebral and maybe even boring but the movie is anything but. This is a fascinating slice of life that masquerades as a police procedural. Here in the States, we think of cop shows mostly as CSI-like, or like “Law and Order,” with brilliant detectives out there catching bad guys in a very black and white milieu.

Here, there isn’t necessarily a bad guy, just a kid who is making a bad life choice. When Cristi’s conscience comes into play the movie elevates into something else completely. Who knew that a scene in which two people essentially debate the meanings of certain words could be so riveting?

Not everyone will agree with me on this. I will grant you that the pace is exceedingly slow, maybe too much for American audiences to really tolerate. Much of the movie is dialogue-free, but when the characters do talk they all have something to say. Even the inanities like the bureaucrats who make excuses why files can’t be delivered to the cop’s desk in a timely manner, or a fellow cop (Stoica) who is offended at not having been invited to his partner’s home for a meal, have a richness to them that fill up the palate of real life, something that Romanian films have been extremely successful at doing over the past decade as their film industry has become one of the finest in the world in terms of consistent quality.

Bucur has a sad sack quality to him and is in many ways the most loosely drawn character of the lot; he is a bit of an everyman who I think is a means of representing the audience in a somewhat absurd situation. Ivanov, who played the sinister abortionist in Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days is superb as the fatherly but officious police captain who not only wants his officer to enforce the law but to understand why it is important he do so without question. It’s an interesting debate that you want to take part of yourself as you watch, always the sign of a movie that is succeeding in its goals.

WHY RENT THIS: A very interesting look at the other side of police work and the value of conscience in law enforcement. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pace is snail-like to the extreme and impatient audiences who tire of reading subtitles might give up on it quickly.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some depiction of teen drug use as well as a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Romania’s official submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar of 2009.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Pirate Radio