UD. 16 April 2016. By Fedir Kurlak

This week saw the visit to the UK of film director Evgeny Afineevsky, whose visit to the UK is based around the screening of Winter on Fire and a panel discussion at the US Embassy in London (with other visits also to Parliament, Manchester and Cambridge). His Oscar-nominated documentary film,followed the unrest in Ukraine during 2013 and 2014, as student demonstrations supporting European integration grew into a violent revolution calling for the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych. We met him at AUGB’s Head Office over a coffee to discuss the film and its impact.

Evgeniy Afineevsky is relaxed and approachable as he sits discussing his work.

He speaks frankly and openly, and is very passionate, stressing that his main goal is always to convey ‘the human message’. 

Filming the developments on the Maidan from November of 2013 was no accident - just as his latest project, about the terrible plight of Syrian refugees, is also a very carefully chosen theme. Indeed, in the case of the latter, he describes dispassionately how Syrian children have related their harrowing stories to him about how they have been forced to flee their homeland because of Russian bombings…

History in the making

Evgeniy was (and still is) moved and fascinated by the unity that he saw on the Maidan. It was a full union of all ages, nationalities, religious confessions and social classes. Everyone stood together, as one, against corruption.

“It was amazing to see the complete respect and humanity that everyone had for one another”, he says.  

“Even after the adoption of the draconian anti-democratic laws on 16 January 2014, people reacted with a sense of humour, which simply reaffirmed their great sense of humanity.

“Then, after the first wave of violence, which broke out when people marched on the Parliament to demand a repeal of the anti-democratic laws, the protesters realised at that point that they would all have to ‘stand together until the end’”. 

The Maidan, he says, helped them to grasp that they were the real power and that they were the real government.  Their bravery too has been an inspiration to many...

To add balance, Evgeniy had considered interviewing politicians but then decided against the idea as it became clear that interviews could often degenerate into political PR exercises in front of camera.

“The human stories emanate only from human beings and not from the people whose motivation is solely their political agendas”.

“The documentary is through the eyes of the people who stood under the bullets, or the police batons, or the tear gas... This is their story”.

Was there a moment that he feared for his life while filming the events in and around the Maidan? 

“No. When the adrenaline is pumping, you focus on capturing the event.  It is only afterwards that the roller-coaster of emotions takes hold and you begin to analyse how dangerously close you had exposed yourself to death”.

Was he surprised by how it all ended? 

The Maidan was just the first chapter in Ukraine’s fight for full freedom, he says.

“Every day brought surprises. The original idea was to film for a couple of weeks. But events escalated. It all erupted.  

“Remember, on 1 December there was an eruption of people’s anger and emotions after students had been savagely attacked and beaten by riot police. And it all just snowballed from there. 

“The decision not to sign the Association Agreement was just one factor that brought things to a head. People were already sick and tired of Yanukovych and his regime, fed up with the corruption, fed up of losing their businesses in raider attacks... They wanted change and so they took the future into their own hands.

“Maidan helped to create the birth of a nation.  One simple point/example:  How many people knew the words to the National Anthem before the events on the Maidan?  And now? Everybody knows the words and they are very important and symbolic to them”.   

Evgeniy is certain that, in memory of those who gave their lives, Ukrainians will not allow their leaders to reverse the process of much needed reforms.

The Dutch referendum has provided the Ukrainian President and Government with a ‘cold shower’ moment and has reminded them that they need to act swiftly to implement much needed reforms.

Changes will take place, he says, but it will take time. And he is hopeful that many of the young people who lived through Maidan will become politicians and, in time, will automatically introduce all necessary changes in the country.

Film footage

How much footage was actually shot to produce Winter on Fire?

“Filming began in November 2013 and by February 2014 there were 28 people filming events as they unfolded.  

“In the end we had 15 Terabytes of footage to sift though. 

“Three editors and two assistants worked on this for six weeks, day and night, and then further editing was carried out in the US over a period of three months.

“It took as long as it did because it was an incredibly difficult task to decide which footage to discard or include in the film.

“Also, some of the filmed footage, for example, near the National Bank and on Instytutska Street, or of the killing of Serhiy Nigoyan, was handed over to the Ukrainian government/Secret Services (SBU) to help with their investigations”. 

And who or what remains most memorable for him out of all of the filming that he did?

“One of the most intriguing characters on the Maidan was 12-year old Roman Gabrosh who found his soul on the Maidan. He believes in his country and is now fighting on the Eastern Front for Ukraine”.

On Russia-Ukraine

“Through its actions, the Russian government has caused countless Ukrainian and Russian families and friends to fall out. The friendship of two nations has been completely broken.”

People in Russia, he says, live in a different reality and dimension because the media is fully government controlled.  He recalls being in Ukraine on the day that flight MH17 was shot down. 

“Watching Russian TV news channels that day was like watching a horror science-fiction movie. They reported that the Americans had loaded a plane full of dead bodies and flew it over Ukraine so that Ukrainians could shoot the plane down to pin the blame onto Russia.  

“You need to have a vivid imagination to come up with something like this”, he says. 

“It’s like something straight out of a Goebbels manual - the bigger the lie, the easier it is to sell.”

Could there ever be a Maidan in Russia?

If there was, it would be very bloody. Putin, sensing that it could happen, has created a new type of army unit with the power to shoot at will. 


What are the lessons to be learnt from the Maidan?

“Maidan was built on the historic kozak idea of freely expressing themselves - in a fully democratic fashion.

“It achieved its goal because of its unity. It showed the world what unity can achieve. And the world should heed this example set by the Maidan, that today’s world problems can only be resolved if the world stands together, united.”

Evgeniy has no plans to continue filming in Ukraine. He says that there is no shortage of good Ukrainian film-makers to fulfil all of Ukraine’s needs. 

So he moves on to his next project – to the Syrian refugees “to bring the voices of ordinary people to the eyes and ears of the world - ordinary people, who do not want to be terrorists, who do not want to be bombed, but who just want to live in their own homeland, in freedom”.

“Winter on Fire” is available to view on Netflix.


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