BREAKING POINT: THE WAR FOR DEMOCRACY IN UKRAINE (Mark Jonathan Harris, 2016)
22 East 12th St. between University Pl. & Fifth Ave.
Opens Friday, March 2
This past December, I saw Counting Sheep: An Immersive Guerrilla Folk Opera, Mark and Marichka Marczyk’s interactive production about the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv, where they met and fell in love while battling the Berkut. The audience could get as involved as they wanted in order to enhance the experience, including eating with the characters, putting on construction hats, throwing fake rocks, huddling behind wooden signs, and helping build a barrier. While it was obviously far from the real thing, in retrospect I was surprised at how well that work captured the actual events when I began watching three-time Oscar-winning documentarian Mark Jonathan Harris and Oles Sanin’s Breaking Point: The War for Democracy in Ukraine, a powerful, intimate look at war and politics over the last few years as Ukraine fights for its freedom against corrupt Ukraine president Victor Yanukovych and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. “For the Kremlin, the only way to stop something like this is a violent crackdown,” former Ukraine prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk says. “They thought they would terrorize the people. The people would run. And exactly the opposite happened.” The film focuses on how everyday Ukrainian men and women joined in protest and took up arms against the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Crimea, conducted by military forces who wore no insignia, allowing Russia to deny involvement in the killings. “I felt like all Kyiv had woken up and gathered together,” lawyer and volunteer medic Eva Yanchenko explains. Self-defense unit leader and former rabbi Natan Hazin declares that Ukraine is “a country worth dying for.” And children’s theater director Andriy “Bohema” Sharaskin says, “I’m the kind of person who thinks that beauty, art, love will save the world. . . . But on February 18, they started killing people. It was the breaking point, when everyone realized that watching, waiting, helping from a distance wasn’t good enough anymore. . . . We’re building a country and we’re fighting for it.”
Harris (Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, The Long Way Home) and Sanin (Mamay, The Guide) include terrifying footage of shootings, an attack on Donetsk Airport, the aftermath of a plane being shot down, and investigative reporter Tetyana Chronovol’s pursuit by mysterious men who beat her. “There is a war for Ukraine’s survival,” says Chronovol, whose husband, Mykola Berezovyi, was part of the ragtag but determined military. The filmmakers also talk with historian Timothy Snyder, writer Andrey Kurkov, Crimea expert Taras Berezovets, first Ukraine president Leonid Kravchuk, television journalist Mustafa Nayyem, radio host Andriy Kulykov, author Anne Applebaum, former US ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer, and army doctor Vsevolod Stebliuk, who is seen trying to save lives under extremely difficult circumstances. Propaganda expert Paul Goble shows how Russia uses fake news on social media and television, manipulating photos and employing crisis actors to spread disinformation, which is especially fascinating given Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. And keep reading the text that identifies the speakers in the film; several of the labels change over the course of the movie as citizens enter the political arena in a grassroots effort to make a difference. The score tends to be overly melodramatic, attempting to elicit sympathy that is already up there on the screen, and only one side of the story is told, but the film, written by Paul Wolansky and edited by Jason Rosenfield, manages to overcome that. Since the Maidan revolution in February 2014, thousands of Ukrainians have been killed and nearly two million have become displaced refugees, but that is not stopping the people from defending what is rightfully theirs while preserving their dignity, men and women who are willing to risk their lives and the lives of their families in order to be free.