‘Winter on Fire’ Director Talks Risking Life to Shoot Ukraine Revolt: ‘We Got Beaten Horribly by Police’

TheWrap Screening Series: Evgeny Afineevsky explains how he captured the 2013-14 Kiev uprising with help from a million protesters with cellphones

The cinematographers of Evgeny Afineevsky’s Netflix documentary “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom,” documenting Kiev’s 2013-14 Maidan Square uprising, would never fit on the Oscar stage.

“At the peak, it was over a million people [protesting in the square],” Afineevsky told moderator Steve Pond at TheWrap’s Award Screening Series at the Landmark Theater in Los Angeles on Wednesday. “All nationalities, all ages, all social classes.”

A fair number of them were recording the incredible scene of confrontation between Ukrainians and the government of President Yanukovych, who sided with Putin, sent thugs to beat protestors and passed laws forbidding helmets on citizens, so that helmeted cops could bash their heads or government snipers could kill them. As depicted in the film, Ukrainians defiantly donned everything from bicycle helmets to colanders and rallied to the Maidan.

“The youth came out and they wanted to stand their ground and not let politicians into the square,” said Afineevsky. “I hired two cameramen and started to film. It was literally a festival, and all of a sudden everything happened spontaneously, in nine days. At four in the morning, me and all my team got beaten horribly by the police. I realized history was happening there. I was committed [to shooting] for two weeks and stayed six months. I felt responsible for documenting the history.”

Since he never knew where in the huge crowd drama would erupt, Afineevsky had to rely on others’ footage. “I was surrounded with these real filmmakers all on the front lines. There were GoPros, cellphones, camcorders, drones — all kinds of equipment, all of them wanted to share their stories. They all came to me. In some moments I was able to angle the camera, to be in the director’s shoes, and at some points I was just facilitating what they were bringing in. So it was a lot of heart and mind on my behalf, but at the same time the unity of the square, and all these kinds of cooperators and filmmakers that made this movie.”

Strangely, the director was never scared while getting hurt and dodging bullets, only when he left the scene of the government’s crime. “The worst fear is when you’re leaving,” he said. “I was obligated to take my BlackBerry battery and wrap it in foil, because even when switched off it still has GPS, and they can target you. People were being kidnapped right and left.”

Afineevsky, a Russian-American citizen, took his 15-plus terabytes of footage to Los Angeles and consulted Errol Morris‘ editor Angus Wall. “I was a big fan of Errol Morris movies,” Afineevsky explained. “Angus said, ‘I can help you, but not as an editor.’ So he brought me Will Znidaric, who had a Serbian background, so he understood the language. We worked on it for two-and-a-half, three months, and Angus came up every couple weeks — he was a valuable asset.” The editor convinced him to explain things that were blazingly obvious to him and Ukrainians, but confusing to the audience he aimed for, Netflix’s audience in 50 countries.

The director can no longer safely go to Russia, but he has an audience there. “It was pirated, and all the time I see on Google Alerts that it’s being viewed on Torrent. I know people in Russia are watching this.” Also, he notes, people may be able to pay to see “Winter on Fire” there soon. “Netflix will be expanding [its markets]. Ukraine and Russia will be on this list.”