Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, AKA Triumph of the Will 2.0

There is a new film that has premiered on Netflix, WINTER ON FIRE: UKRAINE’S FIGHT FOR FREEDOM, that is a stunning piece of neoliberal propaganda, an utter depravity that has as much intellectual merit as a bowl of cottage cheese and as much honesty as Leni Riefenstahl. Of course, one should not be surprised.

In the absolute debacle that has been the Ukraine crisis, I have personally found a certain level of difficulty in handling both sides of the media. There is a failure to acknowledge, for example, that Ukraine, much like Poland, is a historic front line in the sometimes quite nasty and violent feud between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian Churches, a schism that dates back to 1054 and was based around both theological and territorial disputes. There is also a tendency on the pro-Russian side to paint the entire Ukrainian nationalist movement as neo-Nazi. I am not saying this is untrue, but some of the players in Ukraine are descended from opponents of the Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera. And while we are talking about Ukrainian anti-Semites, it is absolutely necessary to include in that discussion the name of Nikita Khrushchev, who had some truly awful moments regarding settling Jews in Crimea, though the question of when Soviet anti-Zionism morphed into anti-Semitism is a hard topic to parse through.

My point is that the Ukraine is not a replay of the Great Patriotic War totally, just as that war was not a re-staging of Napoleon’s invasion of Tsarist Russia. The neoliberal siege of a historic warm water port of the Russian sphere of influence is its own unique theater of combat that can be informed by reading Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate or Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but neither an atomic bomb nor the cannons of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture will end this episode. Neoliberalism as a socio-economic and political program of social engineering is in many regards far more insidious than fascism ever was, especially considering how it coopts and utilizes identity politics as a weapon in ways the Nazi project would have been genuinely revolted by. For example, the film features as advocates of the neoliberal program Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish voices, going farther than petty tokenism and into co-option of the history of national minorities in Europe so to serve capital. This is what we can call a new development or evolution in the coordinates of imperialism.

That kind of nuance is absolutely lacking from WINTER ON FIRE, which imposes a cheap Hollywood three-act structure on an eastern European conflict that has multiple parties and perspectives. Not since Leni Riefenstahl gave us the godly descent of Der Führer in THE TRIUMPH OF THE WILL have audiences been subjected to such bombast and lack of critical thinking. Figures like Volodymyr Parasyuk and Mykhailo Havryliuk, both politicians with right wing connections, are interviewed and represented as glorious patriots rather than stooges for neoliberalism. The film begins with a passage that lets the cat right out of the bag for anyone who has a clue, which is the critical crack in the foundation that makes this exercise ultimately so banal. From the beginning, the film discusses how the hinge of the dispute is a free trade agreement that was part of European Union integration. OOPS! Heads up, boys and girls, America has been dealing with free trade since the 1990’s thanks to the work of Bill Clinton’s passage of NAFTA, it is not a harbinger of freedom. In reality, it merely gives you the freedom to starve in creative fashions. I know personally people on the verge of losing their houses because of free trade. You sure this is so awesome?

The film is glossy and relies on the type of hallmarks that have made documentaries so successful in the past ten years, using gritty realism in the cinematography that is reminiscent of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Since the box office success of Michael Moore’s BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE and FAHRENHEIT 9/11, nonfiction cinema has become a hot commodity in a fashion akin to how the 1977 STAR WARS made science fiction cool for a good decade or so. But just as was the case with HOWARD THE DUCK, one cannot say all the successors of the original hit have been fantastic. There have been some stellar documentaries in the past few years, but a large majority of them have been absolute garbage, trash cinema that will never have a kitschy value in a few more decades. WINTER ON FIRE, as both an advertisement for neoliberalism and a film, is a stunning example of this.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.

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