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Yevgeny Afineevsky, director of the documentary film “Winter on Fire” talked to MYMEDIA about how to get Hollywood interested in a documentary about Euro Maidan, how to sell films to a video service that has over 75 million subscribers, and how it feels to get nominated for Oscar.
 

Maidan, Oscar and Russia


Yevgeny, there are curious details in your biography: you were born in Kazan, where you entered medical college. But no sooner had you started before you dropped out to begin a career in cinematography. What influenced your decision? 
 
Even before I went to study medicine, I had been involved in stage production and made some short documentaries when I was 16. I have always wanted to be associated with the arts, stage and cinema. When I was young, there were no digital phones which one could grab and make a movie. I was born into a simple family and could not afford to buy fancy equipment. But as a schoolboy I was very active in cinema clubs. So driven by my passion, I managed to find a chance to produce first small documentaries. 

So now you work in Hollywood and this year your documentary about the revolution in Ukraine in 2014 was nominated for Oscar. What does this nomination mean to you? 
 
This nomination is the highest recognition of the work that Ukrainian and American teams achieved together. It's an honor to be recognized by professionals in this category and to be included in their community. It means we were able to turn the story of Maidan into a universal message, which is appealing to people all over the world. 
 
 
But what were your motives when you left everything to cross the world and film student protests on Maidan? I know that you received a phone call from your friend, who told you that “history is being made here”. But after all, at that time nobody knew that students would be beaten by the authorities, and this would turn into 93 days of fierce confrontation…
 
I am famous for my spontaneity. I filmed several movies in unexpected situations. My motivation was to capture something extraordinary. At that time I was familiar with events of Arab spring in Egypt in 2011, when Egyptian youth came out to Tahrir square in Cairo, and forced their president Hosni Mubarak to step aside. I was able to compare things, and it was interesting for me to come over and see such events with my own eyes.
 
Could you or any of your team members have guessed, back in 2014, that you would receive an Oscar nomination for this work?
 
I know that for Ukraine everything related to the Oscars sounds very important. But for me, an Oscar is just the highest recognition of the quality of the work.
 
At that time my main goal was to tell the story across the Globe. And I achieved it with the help of Netflix, that has over 75 million subscribers in 190 countries
 
The Oscar the movie will get wider and quicker exposure, as all Oscar events always attract enormous attention. Whatever happens at the Oscar ceremony itself does not matter so much.  
 
Numerous movies were filmed about Euro Maidan within the last 2 years, by both Ukrainian and Western film directors.  Why do you think yours was the one that received the nomination? 
 
First, I was trying to keep an objective position as an outsider. I was not an activist, but I allowed the people from my team to tell their stories. Many volunteers, who wanted to join the project, contributed to my film with their footage. For me it was also important that the movie was not financed by anyone except me and my business partner. 
 
And most importantly – I did not try to bring merely the message of Maidan and the story of Ukrainians. I was trying to send a universal message – about humanity, unity and main democratic values, such as freedom of expression. These values relate to American audience, this is what the founding father of United States stood for. And this message should be brought forward to the young generation in the US, just to remind them that they should not take their freedom for granted. 

Was it difficult to remain apart, and not to turn into an activist? Many Ukrainian journalists experienced this difficulty. 
 
It was a challenge for me too. But as a film director I was trying to keep myself neutral and remain objective. I found a lot of friends there and Maidan became my family. But my objective was to tell a true story. 
 
Do you stay in touch with any of the heroes of your movie? 
 
Yes, with all of them. Romka (the youngest activist in the movie, a 12-year-old teenager, who became a hero of a separate short meter movie “Romka”) is now in ATO. He went there in fall 2014, soon after the last tents of Maidan were removed. 
 
Many filmmakers and journalists, who cover wars and conflicts, prefer to throw the heroes out of their mind once the piece is finished, detachment for psychological self preservation. You don’t seem to share this approach…
 
I still live with Maidan in my heart and mind. For me Maidan never finished – I live through every episode over and over again. I wish I could completely step into my next project, but instead I left everything in Europe and came back to the US to continue fighting for further spread of Maidan stories around the world. And will continue till the end, like the heroes of my movie. 
 
 
You acquired new Ukrainian friends during the revolution, but at the same time lost old ones from Russia. Has anything changed within the last 2 years?
 
No. Those who were my real friends remain so. The others just pretended and decided to cross me out of their friend lists because of my tribute Ukrainian history. Such events help us to see who our real friends are.
 
Would you like Russians to find out through your movie, what was really going on in Maidan that winter? They still seem to have a completely different vision…
 
I want every person in the world to take something from this movie, including Russians. 

What was the reaction to your movie in Russia? 
I haven’t heard anything from them. People there have their own opinion, based on the circumstances they are living in. But my friends liked it. 

Do you think such events like Maidan are probable in other post-Soviet countries in the nearest future? 
 
Maidan was a first chapter of fighting for freedom in your country. I will be glad if other countries could learn from this experience and will be inspired by this example. This is why I’m making movies – for people and countries to learn from each other and the role models of my characters. I don’t know what will happen, but my goal is to change lives. 
 

Shootings and distribution

 
At the time of Maidan even local news could not always figure out what exactly was happening. How did you manage to shoot and plan movie in these conditions? 
 
Volunteers who kept bringing their stories helped me a lot. It was an honour for me that the people, who have been a part of these events, trusted my storytelling. 
 
Maidan was huge, and one couldn’t know what would happen in the next second. You could be in one place, and in another part of Maidan there could be something else going on, no less important. Volunteers’ stories helped me collect many perspectives and viewpoints. 
Maidan won due to the great unity – of all nationalities, ages, social classes, religious confessions. And the same thing with our movie – the unity of my team players and all contributors helped to achieve this goal.
 
Yes, but one thing is to produce a good movie, and another is to make this story seen all across the world. How did you manage to achieve such a wide distribution? 
 
I have a lot of friends, who are in close relationships with the studios. I sent them my rough cut, they showed it to Netflix, HBO, Magnolia and other distributors.  Netflix called first – they loved the story. They suggested how we could re-shape it for the wider audience. After that Netflix made every effort to tell the story to the entire world. 

What exactly had to be changed to make the film more suitable for a Western audience? 
 
The first rough cut was missing a wider context with which western audience is not familiar. Many people there know very little about Ukraine, Maidan or the reason for those events. They would not understand why people who were beaten, killed and nevertheless kept coming back in growing numbers. So I had to add some history, starting from the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991.

Do you know how many people have actually seen your movie on Netflix and from which regions? 
 
No, I don’t have any access to this data. 
 
And from financial point of view did you manage to merely cover your expenses with Netflix, or even make some profit out of it? 
 
Documentaries are not about making money. Even at this point, I barely covered my expenses for the project. Netflix is helping to tell the story, and this was the goal. Within a certain period they will cover my expenses, but now they are investing in promotion of the movie. And I’m still out of pocket for my previous documentaries, but I don’t regret them  - documentaries are my passion. I earn my living from other projects, scripted features. 
 
Were there any important moments that didn’t make the final edit?
 
The thing is that directors don’t have the audiences’ attention for very long. Every year this attention span gets shorter. I tried to stick to the main events of this revolution, still telling the entire story and showing human beings behind the headlines. There were a lot of fascinating moments throughout 93 days, and I had over 15 terabytes of footage, but I had to choose the most important. 
 
"Winter on Fire" received some criticism for being one-sided and exposing only the rebels’ position.  In your view, should the documentary be shot according to international standards of objectivity, or can the author’s viewpoint prevail? 
 
I’m not a journalist, I’m a filmmaker. I have a choice. I live in a free country, and as an artist I have both freedom of speech and freedom of expression. So I can decide how I want to tell my story, and from whose perspective. It’s a movie, not news.
 
I decided for myself, that the people, who stood up for what they believe, despite police batons, tear-gas, cold water and bullets, are much more important to show than the politicians, who came to do their PR. They came and proclaimed themselves the leaders while doing nothing for the revolution. It was a victory of the people, not politicians. 
 
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Yevgeny Afineevsky, director of the documentary film “Winter on Fire” talked to MYMEDIA about how to get Hollywood interested in a documentary about Euro Maidan, how to sell films to a video service that has over 75 million subscribers, and how it feels to get nominated for Oscar.
 

Maidan, Oscar and Russia


Yevgeny, there are curious details in your biography: you were born in Kazan, where you entered medical college. But no sooner had you started before you dropped out to begin a career in cinematography. What influenced your decision? 
 
Even before I went to study medicine, I had been involved in stage production and made some short documentaries when I was 16. I have always wanted to be associated with the arts, stage and cinema. When I was young, there were no digital phones which one could grab and make a movie. I was born into a simple family and could not afford to buy fancy equipment. But as a schoolboy I was very active in cinema clubs. So driven by my passion, I managed to find a chance to produce first small documentaries. 

So now you work in Hollywood and this year your documentary about the revolution in Ukraine in 2014 was nominated for Oscar. What does this nomination mean to you? 
 
This nomination is the highest recognition of the work that Ukrainian and American teams achieved together. It's an honor to be recognized by professionals in this category and to be included in their community. It means we were able to turn the story of Maidan into a universal message, which is appealing to people all over the world. 
 
 
But what were your motives when you left everything to cross the world and film student protests on Maidan? I know that you received a phone call from your friend, who told you that “history is being made here”. But after all, at that time nobody knew that students would be beaten by the authorities, and this would turn into 93 days of fierce confrontation…
 
I am famous for my spontaneity. I filmed several movies in unexpected situations. My motivation was to capture something extraordinary. At that time I was familiar with events of Arab spring in Egypt in 2011, when Egyptian youth came out to Tahrir square in Cairo, and forced their president Hosni Mubarak to step aside. I was able to compare things, and it was interesting for me to come over and see such events with my own eyes.
 
Could you or any of your team members have guessed, back in 2014, that you would receive an Oscar nomination for this work?
 
I know that for Ukraine everything related to the Oscars sounds very important. But for me, an Oscar is just the highest recognition of the quality of the work.
 
At that time my main goal was to tell the story across the Globe. And I achieved it with the help of Netflix, that has over 75 million subscribers in 190 countries
 
The Oscar the movie will get wider and quicker exposure, as all Oscar events always attract enormous attention. Whatever happens at the Oscar ceremony itself does not matter so much.  
 
Numerous movies were filmed about Euro Maidan within the last 2 years, by both Ukrainian and Western film directors.  Why do you think yours was the one that received the nomination? 
 
First, I was trying to keep an objective position as an outsider. I was not an activist, but I allowed the people from my team to tell their stories. Many volunteers, who wanted to join the project, contributed to my film with their footage. For me it was also important that the movie was not financed by anyone except me and my business partner. 
 
And most importantly – I did not try to bring merely the message of Maidan and the story of Ukrainians. I was trying to send a universal message – about humanity, unity and main democratic values, such as freedom of expression. These values relate to American audience, this is what the founding father of United States stood for. And this message should be brought forward to the young generation in the US, just to remind them that they should not take their freedom for granted. 

Was it difficult to remain apart, and not to turn into an activist? Many Ukrainian journalists experienced this difficulty. 
 
It was a challenge for me too. But as a film director I was trying to keep myself neutral and remain objective. I found a lot of friends there and Maidan became my family. But my objective was to tell a true story. 
 
Do you stay in touch with any of the heroes of your movie? 
 
Yes, with all of them. Romka (the youngest activist in the movie, a 12-year-old teenager, who became a hero of a separate short meter movie “Romka”) is now in ATO. He went there in fall 2014, soon after the last tents of Maidan were removed. 
 
Many filmmakers and journalists, who cover wars and conflicts, prefer to throw the heroes out of their mind once the piece is finished, detachment for psychological self preservation. You don’t seem to share this approach…
 
I still live with Maidan in my heart and mind. For me Maidan never finished – I live through every episode over and over again. I wish I could completely step into my next project, but instead I left everything in Europe and came back to the US to continue fighting for further spread of Maidan stories around the world. And will continue till the end, like the heroes of my movie. 
 
 
You acquired new Ukrainian friends during the revolution, but at the same time lost old ones from Russia. Has anything changed within the last 2 years?
 
No. Those who were my real friends remain so. The others just pretended and decided to cross me out of their friend lists because of my tribute Ukrainian history. Such events help us to see who our real friends are.
 
Would you like Russians to find out through your movie, what was really going on in Maidan that winter? They still seem to have a completely different vision…
 
I want every person in the world to take something from this movie, including Russians. 

What was the reaction to your movie in Russia? 
I haven’t heard anything from them. People there have their own opinion, based on the circumstances they are living in. But my friends liked it. 

Do you think such events like Maidan are probable in other post-Soviet countries in the nearest future? 
 
Maidan was a first chapter of fighting for freedom in your country. I will be glad if other countries could learn from this experience and will be inspired by this example. This is why I’m making movies – for people and countries to learn from each other and the role models of my characters. I don’t know what will happen, but my goal is to change lives. 
 

Shootings and distribution

 
At the time of Maidan even local news could not always figure out what exactly was happening. How did you manage to shoot and plan movie in these conditions? 
 
Volunteers who kept bringing their stories helped me a lot. It was an honour for me that the people, who have been a part of these events, trusted my storytelling. 
 
Maidan was huge, and one couldn’t know what would happen in the next second. You could be in one place, and in another part of Maidan there could be something else going on, no less important. Volunteers’ stories helped me collect many perspectives and viewpoints. 
Maidan won due to the great unity – of all nationalities, ages, social classes, religious confessions. And the same thing with our movie – the unity of my team players and all contributors helped to achieve this goal.
 
Yes, but one thing is to produce a good movie, and another is to make this story seen all across the world. How did you manage to achieve such a wide distribution? 
 
I have a lot of friends, who are in close relationships with the studios. I sent them my rough cut, they showed it to Netflix, HBO, Magnolia and other distributors.  Netflix called first – they loved the story. They suggested how we could re-shape it for the wider audience. After that Netflix made every effort to tell the story to the entire world. 

What exactly had to be changed to make the film more suitable for a Western audience? 
 
The first rough cut was missing a wider context with which western audience is not familiar. Many people there know very little about Ukraine, Maidan or the reason for those events. They would not understand why people who were beaten, killed and nevertheless kept coming back in growing numbers. So I had to add some history, starting from the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991.

Do you know how many people have actually seen your movie on Netflix and from which regions? 
 
No, I don’t have any access to this data. 
 
And from financial point of view did you manage to merely cover your expenses with Netflix, or even make some profit out of it? 
 
Documentaries are not about making money. Even at this point, I barely covered my expenses for the project. Netflix is helping to tell the story, and this was the goal. Within a certain period they will cover my expenses, but now they are investing in promotion of the movie. And I’m still out of pocket for my previous documentaries, but I don’t regret them  - documentaries are my passion. I earn my living from other projects, scripted features. 
 
Were there any important moments that didn’t make the final edit?
 
The thing is that directors don’t have the audiences’ attention for very long. Every year this attention span gets shorter. I tried to stick to the main events of this revolution, still telling the entire story and showing human beings behind the headlines. There were a lot of fascinating moments throughout 93 days, and I had over 15 terabytes of footage, but I had to choose the most important. 
 
"Winter on Fire" received some criticism for being one-sided and exposing only the rebels’ position.  In your view, should the documentary be shot according to international standards of objectivity, or can the author’s viewpoint prevail? 
 
I’m not a journalist, I’m a filmmaker. I have a choice. I live in a free country, and as an artist I have both freedom of speech and freedom of expression. So I can decide how I want to tell my story, and from whose perspective. It’s a movie, not news.
 
I decided for myself, that the people, who stood up for what they believe, despite police batons, tear-gas, cold water and bullets, are much more important to show than the politicians, who came to do their PR. They came and proclaimed themselves the leaders while doing nothing for the revolution. It was a victory of the people, not politicians. 
 
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