In 2015 a fellow journalist moved to Kyiv from Moscow and posted about encountering all sorts of Westerners in a hostel, all of them excited to be doing something “for the cause.” She didn’t spell it out but the message was clear. I could see myself there, surrounded by Canadians, Americans, and Brits, listening to them yammer on about Maidan, “the cause,” Putin, and various other subjects they’d never spoken about prior to 2014, perhaps punctuated by bro-stories about “hot chicks.” Yeah, I know these types, and my expectations are low.
Last autumn I published a piece about cheerleaders. Looking back I think I might have left out a key feature that makes the worst sort of cheerleader out there. This is the cheerleader that really has no background or interest in a particular cause until they see something on TV or perhaps a movie, and then that thing “inspires” them to take up the torch and “fight” for something they don’t really understand. Generally these cheerleaders get a ridiculously oversimplified version of the story, pick a side, and then dive right in. Their boundless passion and black-and-white thinking causes them to attract the attention of the most radical, absolutist elements on the side they’re supporting. As they fall in with these people, a feedback loop is created whereby they believe their passion and dedication is both representative and appreciated. Simultaneously, their radical friends find a pliant foreigner on which they can imprint their own ideology, even if it isn’t very representative or accurate. At this point our newly minted cheerleader is more than happy to lecture people who have years of background in the subject and who are far more qualified to make opinions, usually beginning with the line: “Well I have Ukrainian/Russian friends, and they agree with me!”
The problem with these insufferable dipshits is that to them everything is simple. “I must save poor Ukraine from Putin’s Soviet Russia!” Never mind the fact that they never knew anything about Ukraine or Russia before that. “I must support the Donbass revolutionaries against the fascist junta!” Ah yes, if only you knew something about Russian and Ukrainian “Communists” before you decided to play Che Guevara in Donetsk. Sometimes you try to reach these people, but they’ve already got their “handlers” filling their heads with their own ideological bullshit.
In truth, what is happening in Ukraine, and indeed Russia too, is very complicated. The American or Canadian English teacher can spend a few months in Kyiv, write an article, and suddenly become a “fighter” for the cause of Ukraine versus Russia. For many Ukrainians that isn’t the case. Many of them have relatives and friends in Russia or behind occupied lines in the Crimea or Donbas. For me the epitome of how complex this conflict is was Pavel Petrov, the volunteer sniper I met on the train back to Kyiv . Born in Russia, ethnically Russian, a veteran of the Soviet army with relatives still living in Russia. And at 44 years he volunteered to fight not, as he repeated to me twice, against Russia, but “for Ukraine.” He was doing the fighting to keep his 18-year-old son safe from war. This is the sort of story that gets left out of the media coverage. It’s the kind of story that the American fresh out of college or the Brit on a gap year never learns.
Whence do these cheerleaders come? What foul mutant stork drops them on the doorstep? Well folks, I’ve finally got a perfect example. Look no further than Oscar-nominated documentary Winter on Fire. I’ve already voiced some apprehension at this film once, in the second section of this column. It seems some of my concerns were justified after I saw a couple reviews of the film.
Let me start with this review on RFE/RLOMG!CIA!!! Here’s where it set off my rage meter:
“One thing that proved crucial to the process was Afineevsky’s decision to focus solely on the people on Kyiv’s Independence Square and to tell their stories without overburdening audiences with too much background or context. The director did not want to take the audience “out of the Maidan” and he therefore eschewed any detailed explanations of the corruption and political tensions that brought people out onto the streets in the first place.”
Yeah that sounds like a winning strategy. You audience knows nothing about this country or its background, and your solution is to ignore all that in favor of focusing on a riot with flashing lights and loud noises. That certainly helps build understanding. Context? Who needs that? I bet only paid-Russian trolls would demand context!
It only gets worse:
Oscar nomination notwithstanding, some critics have also taken issue with the film’s “one-sided” narrative, which omits alternative viewpoints such as those of Ukrainians in the east who are now pushing to secede from the country and move closer to Russia.
Afineevsky gives such reproaches short shrift, however, saying that he is, first and foremost, a filmmaker not a journalist.
If he’s not a journalist, why is he making documentary films like this? The truth is that documentaries are often a poor replacement for investigative journalism, but that doesn’t mean that a documentary maker shouldn’t strive to educate his or her audience. This doesn’t help Ukraine. If he had got opposing opinions, at least from Ukrainians, audiences could have seen exactly how popular or unpopular Maidan was in the east. They might have learned how most people in eastern Ukraine don’t in fact see themselves as Russian and didn’t want to be a part of Russia. One-sidedness and oversimplification makes this film easy pickings for pro-Kremlin pundits, and they just love low-hanging fruit as it’s the only thing they can manage to take on without making fools of themselves.
Suppose for a moment that some RT hack made their own documentary about “Russian spring.” Naturally it would be pretty one-sided. Would this be nominated for an Oscar? Why not? Of course it wouldn’t be objective, but perhaps the author says that they are a filmmaker and not a journalist? If the technique of being one-sided is okay by Academy standards, then it ought to work both ways.
Once again we have a scenario whereby ignoring other viewpoints actually aids the Russian narrative, because not only can they claim bias, but they get to fill in the blanks on topics Western media outlets often ignored. An example of this I mentioned in a previous post was the matter of American funding for NGOs involved in Maidan. Because this was rarely broken down in detail in the West, the topic was essentially ceded to Russia’s propaganda machine, which filled the vacuum with their own conspiratorial narrative. Oversimplification doesn’t help the cause. I would have been far more receptive to Maidan myself had it not been for the oversimplified narrative commonly used by Western media outlets at the time.
Of course the director doesn’t seem to think oversimplification is a problem:
“He also dismisses claims that he oversimplified the narrative and glossed over some of the Maidan’s more unsavory elements, such as the involvement of the nationalist Right Sector movement, which has been accused of fascist leanings. (Afineevsky points out that insignia of the far-right group can be clearly seen on one of the interviewee’s clothes.)”
Minor correction here. Right Sector is a fascist movement by definition, hands down. It seems the director made no attempt to hide the nationalist involvement in Maidan, but if he had spent some time on that topic it would have actually been of great service to the movement. A more detailed analysis of nationalists at Maidan would have shown their true numbers and influence. We could have heard their views and then heard other Maidan participants’ opinions about them. This would have struck a blow against the Russian narrative, which from the beginning insisted that nationalists were a major, controlling part of the protests.
“You know what? Right Sector, they actually fought for everything like everybody else. They were a part of these people,” he says. “At the end of the day, it was people who came out, who stood for what they believed in, and who achieved [something].”
Yeah, great defense there. I agree that entire protest movements shouldn’t be judged by the actions of a minority. Occupy had its share of libertarian Ron Paul cultists, LaRouchites, and even some neo-Nazis. I say this, and yet I just can’t help but remember how our American media, when faced with a domestic protest like Ferguson, just loves to focus all attention on a minority that breaks some windows or loots a store. Thereafter all the protesters and their defenders are compelled to give an account for people they had no control over and who really had nothing to do with their movement. I’d love to see more American news anchors point out that anarchists who smash Starbucks windows or opportunists who use social justice protests as cover to commit crimes were, at the end of the day “part of these people” who achieved something.
In another piece, the director referred to his film as a “manual for revolution.” To me it sounds like a manual for cheerleaders. I can almost picture that 23-year-old upper middle class American straight out of college and living on his parents dime in Kyiv. I see him at Shooters telling some local girls about how he was living it up in Amsterdam, but then he saw this film and realized that he just had to come to Kyiv and help the oppressed Ukrainian people. Or I see the young British man who’s “really into history” and oh so eager to inform me that all those bad things one hears about Bandera are really just Soviet propaganda. Such is what he learned when he started “researching” the matter here in Ukraine, in the middle of 2014.
This kind of shallow coverage doesn’t aid Ukraine or Maidan. It doesn’t promote understanding and I don’t feel it gives any agency to Ukrainians. Once again we have an Eastern European people being fetishized. We’re always gangsters, bandits, desperate women, “sex workers,” or in this case, idealistic revolutionaries who just want to be part of that wonderful, superior West.
The truth is that you can provide context and complexity without necessarily being verbose. I still think one of the best explanations of Maidan was the one provided in just a few words by Stopfake founder and director of Kyiv Mohyla Academy journalism school Yevhen Fedchenko when Robert Evans and I interviewed him last year. Paraphrasing here, he basically said that Maidan was about Ukrainians of many different agendas, ideologies, and walks of life coming together to change the way they were living. That might sound vague but in fact that is so much more accurate.
What is more, it gives people who truly are interested in Ukraine and who truly want to learn about this movement a more realistic foundation to start from. No doubt plenty of people who had rose-colored glasses during Maidan and who lacked any experience in the former Soviet Union were dismayed to find out that no, all is not well after Maidan, and no it’s not all because of the war. In fact, the problems left over after Maidan are one of the factors that has weakened Ukraine in fighting that war. I wonder how people plied with oversimplified narratives would deal with unpleasant information like that in this article about Saakashvili’s Quixotic anti-corruption crusade, or the bad news from this poll. People with realistic expectations and knowledge of the region soldier on. Newly arrived cheerleaders get disillusioned and move on.
The travails of Ukraine and Eastern Europe ought not to be a spectator sport or riot porn. What we need is more understanding and education as opposed to fetishization and vehicles through which Westerners with identity crises can live vicariously. And whether or not this film wins its Oscar, future documentary makers should remember that if they ignore large parts of the story, the Kremlin media will happily fill in those gaps with their own narrative.