Ukraine's Winter Of Discontent

NEW YORK, NY -- On November 21, 2004, Ukrainian citizens went to the polls to cast their ballots in a run-off election for a new president, a right they had only enjoyed for eight years since their nation's constitution came into being.

Film maker Andrei Zagdansky

Ukraine has a long history of political upheaval and conflict dating back to the tsars. True to historical form, the 2004 campaign had been both a close one and a dirty one.

Challenger Viktor Yushchenko, a former prime minister and leader of the Our Ukraine Party, had suffered a near fatal dose of dioxin poisoning.

This was not only barbaric it was ironic — Mr. Yuschenko's followers rallied behind bright orange banners, and stateside Dioxin is known as Agent Orange.

His opponent, the incumbent Viktor Yanukovych, was long rumored to have ties to organized crime, and Orange Party loyalists naturally assumed that Mr. Yanukovych's followers had something to do with the chemical assassination attempt.

In Andrei Zagdansky's new documentary "Orange Winter," which opens today at the Pioneer Theater, the events that followed the run-off election were even more bizarre.

"Power, the people, chance or fate, providence — the interplay of these forces is what makes history," the film's narrator says. Mr. Zagdansky shuffles a deck of images and footage showing history being made fast — both in the halls of government and in the street.

And while he misdeals a few of his cards here and there, "Orange Winter" is a candid and exciting nonfiction account of a fascinating contemporary popular struggle.

The election that had forced the run-off had been roundly criticized for favoring the sitting government. It hadn't helped the credibility of Mr. Yanukovych's candidacy that goon squads, believed to be plain-clothes members of his government's "Special Purpose Police Unit," harassed Orange Party campaigners and voters on numerous occasions.

Ukrainian citizens and international election monitors cast a dubious eye on the November 21 vote count as well. Exit polls indicated that Mr. Yushchenko was the winner by a small but legal margin.

So when state-run television declared Mr. Yanukovych the winner, the native population of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev (a city split between Russian and Ukrainian speakers and loyalists) took to the streets.

In Mr. Zagdansky's footage, thousands of protestors pour into Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kiev's central Independence Square, as the government declares the election over.

But even as TV newsreaders urge the people to go back to work and get on with their lives, a simultaneous onscreen sign language translator, discreetly wearing an orange scarf on her wrist, contradicts the official story.

"I find it very distressing that I've had to translate falsehoods," she tells sign language fluent viewers from her box on the lower right corner of their TV screens. "I won't do that anymore. I don't know if we will see each other again."

Days go by and the mass protest becomes a tent city. Sympathetic retailers put orange sweaters on sale. Sporting goods stores sell out of fishing rods, the most practical hardware with which to hold up and control massive orange banners springing up all over the Maidan. Mr. Zagdansky's camera captures an ad hoc community's growth and life with an eye for both egalitarian gesture and a pretty face.

The homeless get fed. Blond girls smile. An expressionless member of the Special Purpose Police in riot gear works his way down a row of his comrades, brushing the snow off of their body armor and helmets as he goes. Couples make-out and marry. Christmas arrives and orange Christmas trees go up.

Mr. Zagdansky also adds a performance of Mussorgsky's opera " Boris Gudonov" and clips from Aleksandr Dovzhenko's brilliant 1930 Ukraine-set Soviet propaganda film "Earth" to the mix.

Though the music and images are lovely, the metaphoric point they make is a simple one. As the real news events build to their January 2005 conclusion, both opera and film excerpts pale in intensity alongside what actually happened.

Mr. Zagdansky's timeline is occasionally less sure-footed than it could be, and his narrator, the print journalist Matthew Gurewitsch (sounding like a cross between Ben Stein and Mr. Rodgers), fails to sustain a connection with the images he describes and the words he reads.

But "Orange Winter" is nevertheless inspiring, and a viewer's patience with a filmmaker eagerly trying to fit two months that shook Ukraine into 72 minutes will be rewarded.

Source: The New York Sun