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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Chernobyl Diaries


Chernobyl Diaries

Out of the frying pan…

(2012) Horror (Warner Brothers) Devin Kelley, Jonathan Sadowski, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Jesse McCartney, Nathan Phillips, Dimitri Diatchenko, Milos Timotijevic, Pasha D. Lychnikoff, Zinaida Dedakin, Ivana Milutinovic. Directed by Brad Parker

 

Some things are just downright bad ideas. Teasing the starving mother of bear cubs is one of them. Calling Mike Tyson a sissy is another. However, you’d pretty much have to put sightseeing at the sight of the worst nuclear accident in history right at the top of the list.

Chris (McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Dudley) and her good friend Amanda (Kelley) are touring Europe the way only young people can – like complete idiots. Relentlessly taping everything, acting like goofballs in front of the camera, they head into Kiev to visit Chris’ brother Paul (Sadowski) who has been estranged from his family for awhile. Paul shows them a good time, but the continuation of the tour to Moscow is interrupted when Paul meets an extreme tourism operator named Uri (Diatchenko) who proposes a trip to nearby Chernobyl.

Actually, the trip would be to Pripyat, the town near the plant where the plant workers and their families lived which became a deserted ghost town overnight when reactor #4 exploded on April 26, 1986, giving those who lived there no time to even collect their belongs. The town slumbered in radioactive peace for 25 years, the radiation too high to allow any sort of return until recently. The reactor itself is still highly contaminated and can only be approached in complete protective gear and even then only for a few hours at a time.

For Type A personality Paul, this sounds like his kind of adventure. Cautious Chris, who means to propose to Natalie in Moscow (can anyone say Lieutenant Deadmeat?) is reluctant to go but Paul convinces Amanda, who is a photographer, that she can get the shots of a lifetime in Pripyat so Amanda convinces Natalie at which point Chris caves.

At first it looks like the trip is over before it begins – the army has closed off the town and isn’t permitting Uri, who has conducted several tours there, into the town. However wily Uri knows a back way into town and drives the four Americans, along with Norwegian honeymooners Michael (Phillips) and Zoe (Berdal) into the deserted town.

Most of the vegetation is dead and they find a  mutated fish near a stream on the edge of town (had they stayed a little longer they might have seen a whole lot of ’em) but it’s the silence that’s eerie. No birds, few animal noises of any sort. There are feral dogs running around the area which can be dangerous if there’s a lot of them but nothing too dangerous (other than that big mofo bear that runs through one of the apartment buildings, scaring the bejeezus out of them). That is, until they return to their van and find out that the van won’t start – the leads on the starter have either melted or something is wrong with them – and neither Uri nor Michael can repair it. They call for help but nobody answers. It looks like they’ll have to spend the night in the van. And it soon becomes very apparent that they aren’t alone.

Oren Peli, who created the Paranormal Activity franchise, wrote and produced this (first time director Parker was behind the camera). There are several similar elements here; a microscopic budget (under a million, chump change for most Hollywood productions), unknown actors (unless you count pop star McCartney), a genuinely terrifying premise and shaky, hand-held cameras (at times the angles and shaky-cam perspective make this look kind of documentary-like). However, this isn’t nearly as scary as Peli’s previous film.

For one thing, none of the actors are really memorable, although McCartney bears a striking resemblance physically and also vocally to a young Leonardo di Caprio. Diatchenko also is strong and likable as Uri. The rest are mostly unremarkable but pretty competent.

I accept that for most horror movies to work, there has to be an instance of people doing dumb, stupid or irresponsible things and this film is no exception. I would not, for example, venture into the night from the safety of a closed and locked van armed only with a handgun to investigate strange noises when you are already aware that there’s a bear wandering around. You would definitely not do it if you had special forces survival training, which one of the characters supposedly had.

The monsters – you can pretty much figure out what they are – do not really act consistently which is another problem. In some instances they seem to be stalking the tourists with almost military precision. At other times they are mindless, shambling things out of a George A. Romero movie. We really only see them towards the end of the movie although we certainly know they’re there.

I liked parts of the movie and to be honest, with a little more care in the script, particularly in character development – if I can’t care about the characters, I have no emotional investment in their survival. In this case the audience become voyeurs at a Grand Guignol show and walk away merely feeling dirty instead of entertained, but thankfully there is sufficient entertainment value here. It could have used a lot more tension though – and a little less arguing.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific concept.

REASONS TO STAY: Inept script. Lacks real suspense.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, a surfeit of bad language and some pretty graphic and gruesome images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Oren Peli got the idea for the movie after seeing a photo blog of a girl riding through Pripyat on a motorcycle.  

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100. The reviews are pretty much all negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: [Rec]

ANTHONY BOURDAIN LOVERS: During a recent episode set in the Ukraine of his “No Reservations” travel program, chef/author Bourdain was taken to Pripyat and saw the amusement rides and vacant apartment buildings. There were no mutants caught on camera for the show however.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Mr. Popper’s Penguins