New Documentaries: Ukraine on Fire (2017) - Reviewed

Ukraine on Fire is a documentary detailing the history of revolution and civil war in Ukraine throughout that nation’s existence, with a focus on the 2014 revolution. The film makes its point mainly by using narration over existing archive and news footage. However, there are also several original interviews conducted by executive producer Oliver Stone. The pace is fast for a documentary which allows its message to feel urgent. It is well made and never boring, though its intention is to inform in a way that engages viewers, not necessarily to entertain. However, by the end, its barrage of information was exhausting, which I do not think is what the filmmakers were aiming for.

As I understand it, the popularly accepted version of events goes something like this: In November 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych pulled away from negotiations with the European Union and instead chose to establish ties with the Russian Federation. Citizens opposing this decision took to the streets in protest. In February 2014, those protests became violent. Due to the rising civil unrest (and the rising death toll) Parliament voted to remove Yanukovych. Immediately after Yanukovych’s ousting, Russia began making plans to annex the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops in to take control of Crimea. After the troops were in place, a vote was held where 97% of Crimean citizens voted to join Russia. The United Nations ended up invalidating that referendum and declared that Crimea was still a Ukrainian territory.

These are the events according to Ukraine on Fire: Yanukovych pulled away from a potential agreement with the European Union because it would have negatively impacted his people, whereas Putin was offering much better terms. This led to peaceful protests. The violent protests were provoked by the sudden emergence of three new television networks and the involvement of ultra-nationalist groups. These networks and some of these groups were being funded by foreign sources, some coming from the United States. After Yanukovych was forced to flee (and was taken in by Putin), not everyone supported the new government. Crimea, which had been Pro-Yanukovych, held a vote to decide if they wanted to stay with this new regime or become part of Russia. Putin sent troops in to provide citizens with protection against Ukrainian forces that would prevent the vote from taking place. Russia did not meddle in the vote at all and the decision of an overwhelming number of Crimean citizens to join Russia was completely on the level.

That is the Cliff's Notes version of both stories, but you can see why this film could be considered very controversial. Its version of events differs in many significant ways from the version preferred by the United States government. Ukraine on Fire presents Russia and Vladimir Putin (one of the subjects interviewed by Stone for the film) as relative innocents in the whole affair and the United States as interlopers helping to stage a coup to protect their own interests.

I know very little about what has been going on in Ukraine. However, I am very aware of the United States’ stance on Russia. After the events of the last year, Vladimir Putin has never been more of a villain in this country than he is right now. Seeing him and his government portrayed in a positive light in this film was surprising. It is certainly not a popular opinion at the moment. I am not sure if the way Ukraine on Fire presents events is true or not, but it is very convincing. It was interesting seeing the media coverage of these events and then seeing that point-of-view immediately refuted. It is a compelling film with a different viewpoint than what is regularly seen in the media.

Despite the ease with which anyone can obtain news these days, it is harder than ever to know what is true and what is “fake news.” In order to really understand what is going on in the world, you need to gather as much information as possible (even from sources whose beliefs you do not share) and decide for yourself. There is no such thing as unbiased media and Ukraine on Fire is no exception. It is a decent piece of documentary filmmaking that is more valuable for its urgency and the historical information it contains than for its artistic merit.


-Ben Pivoz