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The Ukrainian protest film gripping Hong Kong

The Ukrainian protest film gripping Hong Kong

“Winter on Fire”, a documentary that captures Ukraine's bloody yet victorious Maidan revolution, has caught the imagination of protesters

“Winter on Fire”, a documentary that captures Ukraine's bloody yet victorious Maidan revolution, has caught the imagination of protesters

Caroline Carter | October 15th 2019

The blue and yellow poster shared on social media lists more than a dozen makeshift venues showing “Winter on Fire” on the evening of August 29th. At first glance, the design is indistinguishable from any cinema listing. But below the stylish Chinese calligraphy is a small illustration of a Molotov cocktail. Perhaps that is why the screening that Ferdinand chose, close to his office in Kowloon, was moved from the ground floor to a studio space upstairs. Police officers had visited local shops and told them that the audience was planning to start a riot. In the end around 150 people squeezed in to watch the film projected onto a wall.

Ferdinand, a Hong Konger in his mid-20s, has been a regular at the pro-democracy rallies that have roiled the city since June. A misjudged attempt by the city’s government to force through an unpopular bill, which would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited from Hong Kong to mainland China, unleashed a torrent of fury. Since then, protests and frequent clashes between demonstrators, police and gangs of criminal thugs have put the city on edge.

As the dispute rolls on, Hong Kong’s “leaderless” protest movement is always on the lookout for new ideas. Many people have found inspiration in a documentary about Ukraine’s “EuroMaidan” protests, which took place in Kyiv in 2013. The film, released in 2015, depicts the dramatic and violent demonstrations in which thousands of citizens gathered on the Maidan (Independence Square) to protest against President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to suspend integration with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia. Many protesters were killed by police but the campaign, which lasted 93 days, was victorious; Yanukovych fled to Russia and the opposition government put Ukraine’s relationship with the EU back on track. The parallels with the situation in Hong Kong are obvious, but with the shadow of the Tiananmen Square protests and its bloody conclusion lingering in the minds of many Hong Kongers, “Winter on Fire” makes uneasy, as well as optimistic, viewing.

Kyiv burning A scene from the Euromaidan protest, as documented in the film "Winter On Fire"​ 

Ferdinand went to watch the film because his colleagues had told him that it was “inspirational”. He walked out of the screening scared and shocked, not least at seeing how the violence in Kyiv escalated. “I felt like I was seeing what Hong Kongers would experience,” he says. Many compare the titushki, hired thugs who worked with Ukraine’s brutal Berkut security forces, to the triad gangs in Hong Kong who many believe beat up protesters on behalf of the authorities.

Screen grab A poster advertising screenings of "Winter on Fire"

Mandy, who joined a different screening on Hong Kong Island, found the sheet-on-a-wall screen too small to read the tiny subtitles. She went home and watched the film, which is available on Netflix, three times. For G.G., a young female protester, the similarities between the two scenarios are uncanny. “The way that the Ukrainians toppled the pro-Russian government is just like our uprising,” she said. 

And with protesters in Hong Kong first using fire as a weapon this August, just like protesters did in Kyiv, the film may be influencing the tactics that demonstrators are using now. Ferdinand insists that people had talked about the strategy earlier than that, but he admits that watching the film has given those in the movement ideas; like ways to build taller barricades and how to use vehicles to slow down the police.

C.L., a forty-something Hong Konger who works in finance, says many of his friends were inspired by the film, which he first watched in May and again in July. He says that it was Edward Leung, the spiritual leader of Hong Kong’s radical protesters, who first pointed people towards the Ukraine example. Leung, an aspiring politician whose advocacy of independence in Hong Kong had him banned from an election by the Electoral Affairs Commission, and who is now in prison on riot charges, gave a speech at a campaign rally in 2016 warning about the risks of using a colonial-era emergency law to enforce a face-mask ban. “A few years ago, Ukraine passed an anti-mask law,” he said. “Do you know what happened in Ukraine? A revolution started in Ukraine. You want to do it? Do it, we will fight till the end.”

Gather round Hong Kongers at an outdoor screening on "Winter on Fire" 

It’s not the first time a film has inspired anti-government protest. The Guy Fawkes masks associated with contemporary activist movements, from Occupy to Wikileaks (and worn in Hong Kong too), are drawn from “V for Vendetta”, a film based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. “The Battle of Algiers”, a film released in 1966 that dramatises the urban guerilla warfare undertaken by rebels in their attempts to overthrow the French colonial government during the 1950s, is watched by revolutionary groups around the world (as well as military forces keen to understand the challenges of such conflicts). It was banned by the French government for years after its release.

“Winter on Fire” is already gaining a similar reputation around the world. Screenings of the film popped up across the streets of Caracas during anti-government protests in Venezuela in 2017. Its Russian born director, Evgeny Afineevsky, has expressed his solidarity for Hong Kongers. He stresses that the film is not “screaming and yelling” at people to “go out on the streets”, however he is passionate in his emphasis of the power of people, as well as the role cinema can play in educating by example. “I am behind them,” he says of the Hong Kong protesters. “I am so happy my movies can lead people to stand up for themselves. I am fearing China has enough power to crush them. But if you don’t ask then the answer is no. In this fight for freedom and democracy we must stand up for our rights.”

Taking to the streets A protester faints during a clash at a rally in Hong Kong in June

The documentary ends with scenes of protesters gathered in the square watching the announcement on television that Yanukovych had stood down. The new government, subtitles explain, signed the European integration agreement. Hong Kongers understand the differences. Ukraine was an independent country with a democratically elected parliament, for a start. And the Chinese Communist Party’s strength and determination make it a formidable enemy. It views demands for greater political rights as a threat and considers Hong Kong an indivisible part of the country. In a recent speech, China’s President Xi Jinping promised that anyone who attempts to split any region from China will have “their bodies smashed and bones ground to powder.”

Still, looking abroad gives Hong Kong’s movement hope. Few can fail to be inspired by the bravery of those fighting the final battle in Kyiv: “We are not afraid to die for freedom. Freedom is for us. Freedom is ours,” declares one protester in Kyiv. But it is a victory marred by tragedy: at least 130 protesters were killed that winter—they became known as the “heavenly hundred”. “We lost here the best people of our nation,” laments one survivor. “We paid a huge price.”

Increasingly Hong Kongers who have cheered the successes brought about by the actions of “braves” on the front lines worry about the growing danger they are in, as the protesters and the police become more violent. “People on the front line don't fear death,” declares Ferdinand. But as the risks of retribution from Beijing increase, taking direction from what could be called “Ukraine’s Tiananmen” really could be fatal.

Additional reporting by Ethan Croft