Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015) Review

Director: Evgeny Afineevsky

Genre(s): Documentary, War

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom is, as of right now, my favorite documentary of all time. Filmed by folks who were actually there, this film takes an inside look at the Ukrainian Revolution of 2013-2014, which began when the Ukrainian government, led by President Viktor Yanukovych, sought closer ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Ukrainian people objected, wanting more integration with the rest of Europe (including eventual European Union membership), and took to the streets. This inspiring documentary shows how far some people will go to fight for the liberty of future generations.

The first thing about Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom that must be commented on is its incredible footage. The protests start small enough, but, by the end of the movie, Kyiv (the Ukrainian capital) resembles a war zone. The feature shows how fast things can go from zero to one hundred, as civil disobedience turns to horrific violence, as government forces start beating and, eventually, shooting protestors and revolutionaries. The bravery of the Ukrainian people is impossible to not fall in love with.

This picture is an inspiration to all inhabitants of the Free World, showing the ongoing struggle for freedom and human dignity that still affects many parts of the globe. Ukraine wanted its slice of the European Dream, and opposition to an increasingly-tyrannical regime became the only option. This riveting documentary reveals the frightfully high cost of democracy and human rights, while giving the viewer some hope for a better tomorrow.

Winter on Fire is fueled by passion, so don’t expect a lot of in-depth analysis. The film also contains graphic, bloody violence, so the squeamish are exempted from watching it. However, for everyone else, this is mandatory viewing to arm oneself with knowledge in the ongoing information war with the despots of the Slave World. It’s important and impossible to turn away from.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

The Singing Revolution (2006) Review

Directors: James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty

Genre(s): Documentary, Music

Runtime: 94 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the landmark chapters in the fascinating histories of the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) was the Singing Revolution in the late-1980s and early-1990s, whereby the people of those three Soviet-occupied lands campaigned for independence through the power of folk-singing. This documentary covers the struggle for freedom in Estonia, which was peaceful (there would be some bloodshed in Latvia and Lithuania, which is briefly touched on). This is an intriguing and powerful movie that sheds light on a subject that should be better known in, say, the United States.

The thorough The Singing Revolution, narrated by Linda Hunt, provides an interesting overview of Estonian history from World War II on. During that war, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union invaded the Baltic states first (in agreement with the Nazi regime), followed by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and then the conflict concluded with the region once again in Soviet hands. As a way of keeping national identity alive, the Estonian people turned to folk songs and festivals.

That being said, this documentary is about more than just singing. It almost feels like a political thriller at times, as it delves into the world of the Estonian independence movement and the Soviet government’s response to it. There’s a tense standoff at a Tallinn (the Estonian capital) broadcasting tower that’s one of the highlights of the movie. The sight of thousands of Estonians singing tunes while waving their country’s flag in the middle of a totalitarian occupation is also inspiring.

Actually, there’s not as much singing as I thought there would be in The Singing Revolution. Still, it’s a must-watch documentary with lots of clips of interviews from the people who lived through those trying times (an Estonian Forest Brother – one of the guerrillas in the Baltic states who violently resisted Soviet occupation during the Second World War and the years following it – even gets his say). You don’t really have the whole picture of what went down during World War II and during the finale of the Cold War until you are familiar with the Baltic states’ roles in those events.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) Review

Director: Peter Jackson

Genre(s): Documentary, War

Runtime: 99 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

They Shall Not Grow Old is one of my favorite documentaries of all time. It takes a micro-scale look at World War I from the perspectives of British veterans of said conflict, with their testimonies, recorded decades after the conflagration, serving as the only narration. This is not an overview of the entire war from all points-of-view, instead it focuses on the experiences of those serving Great Britain on the Western Front.

The amount of effort that was put into this documentary puts the word “meticulous” to shame. Not only was footage from the 1914-1918 time period colorized (something that could’ve been quite controversial), but sound was added. We’re not just talking sound effects for artillery and boots in the mud here, we’re talking professional lip-readers being brought in to try to figure out what the soldiers are saying in the silent film pieces. The restored footage with the voices of the servicemen who survived the nightmare is a powerful combination.

They Shall Not Grow Old details several aspects of the life of a typical British soldier in World War I, including training, the killing of lice, downtime, and the difficulties with finding employment after the conflict ended. However, the most notable moments come from the descriptions of front-line combat. The centerpiece “battle scene,” which is supposedly a collection of anecdotes from several different engagements, is just as ferocious-feeling as anything found in a narrative movie. Sure, there wasn’t much up-close-and-personal camerawork related to close-quarters combat from this historical event, since the bulky, hand-cranked cameras of the time couldn’t easily enter the war zone, but the first-hand accounts of the horror make things quite clear.

Tightly focused, there is never a dull moment here. It’s an absorbing work of filmmaking that should be seen by as many people as possible. It is rated R, though, thanks to some photographs of the dead and of “trench foot,” which may limit its ability to be played in schools, but this documentary is a must-see to remind people of the heroism of the Lost Generation. If there’s anything wrong with They Shall Not Grow Old, it’s that it’s simply not longer.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Untamed Africa (1932) Review

Director: Unknown

Genre(s): Adventure, Documentary

Runtime: 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

This nature documentary comes as a bonus feature on the DVD for Kongo (1932). It follows the Hubbard family on a safari deep into Africa where they will befriend a few animals…and kill or capture the rest. Yeah, this one feels like it should’ve been titled “Let’s Hurt Animals: The Motion Picture” at times. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, and some of the hunting seems justified (like when a crocodile is shot for getting too close to the boats).

Untamed Africa benefits from humorous narration and some incredible animal footage. Some of the creatures encountered are pretty cute and some are apparently pretty vicious. The journey documented seems perilous, with the aforementioned crocodiles lying in waiting, lions on the loose, and a highly destructive grass fire.

The movie’s attitude towards the native peoples of Africa could probably be described as, uh, backwards. It does, however, take an interesting peek into the lives of these folks. It can sometimes be difficult to tell what’s genuinely real and what, if anything, has been staged for the camera in this documentary. It’s quite well-edited in that regard.

Untamed Africa is agreeably short (only 56 minutes long), and, if you can get past the animal violence (which includes a lion-on-hyena fight over some food), it makes for decent entertainment. I can see audiences in the Great Depression-era United States eating this stuff up at the time of its release (this Pre-Code documentary was released in 1933 in the States, but, apparently, Denmark beat the U.S. to the punch, sending it to theaters in late 1932…hence the release date used for this review). If you have a DVD copy of Kongo, you might as well watch this one, too.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991) Review

Directors: Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, and Eleanor Coppola

Genre(s): Documentary

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Making a movie, especially one as epic in scale as Apocalypse Now (1979), can’t be easy, and this documentary sheds some light on a time when it seemed like everything that could go wrong did. Yes, this is Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, the famous behind-the-scenes look at the aforementioned 1979 Vietnam War film. Featuring interviews, making-of footage, and recordings of Apocalypse Now director Francis Ford Coppola that were originally intended to be private, this is a must-see picture for fans of the feature it covers (well, if you can handle some animal-related violence, that is).

Coppola actually prevented this documentary’s release on DVD for a while thanks to what he considered to be a less-than-flattering depiction of himself. He doesn’t come across as a monster here, but I can see why he didn’t want this side of him to be seen more widely. He was really stressed-out and probably in over his head during the long, chaotic, and arduous shooting of the movie.

The thesis of Hearts of Darkness seems to be that the filming of Apocalypse Now mirrors the experiences of the characters in the motion picture and of the United States in the Vietnam War. It was a desperate undertaking that felt like a slip into insanity. In the end, the Hellish shoot paid off for Coppola and the filmmakers, but the same cannot be said for the Americans and their allies in the war. Apocalypse Now was a case of directorial hubris gone horribly…right.

I think I actually enjoyed watching Hearts of Darkness more than the picture that it’s centered around (though the 1979 flick is still good). Watching it, it’s hard to believe that the final movie turned out as a well as it did (though I won’t spoil the tribulations faced by the cast and crew, in case you’re out of the loop). This is probably one of the better feature-length behind-the-scenes film documentaries out there.

My rating is 7 outta 10.