Friday, October 9, 2015
by Tony Dayoub
Two wildly different documentaries worth your time go into wide release today. One is Winter on Fire, a sober chronicle of the early days of the unrest in the Ukraine that bows exclusively on Netflix today. But first, let's take a look at the gonzo, stranger-than-fiction story recounted by the far more intimate Finders Keepers, now playing in theaters (including Atlanta's Landmark Midtown Art Cinema) nationwide and available on iTunes and On Demand.
A gruesome discovery by junk dealer Shannon Whisnant shakes his small community of Maiden, North Carolina. But not in the way you might think. The entrepreneurial Whisnant bought a smoker in an auction of repoed items found in delinquent storage units. When Whisnant got home and opened the smoker once belonging to John Wood, he found something else that once belonged to the man... his amputated, embalmed leg. Thus begins one of the strangest all-American tales you'll yet hear, one that encompasses all of the qualities that, for better or worse, make us so unique: capitalism, individualism, celebrity, redemption, and a whopper of a story to tie it all together. Wood, a former rich kid who has fallen on hard times, had his leg amputated after surviving a plane crash that killed his larger than life father, and the guilt and unresolved feelings Wood deals with on a daily basis lead him to drugs and misfortune. The working-class Whisnant has pulled himself up by his bootstraps, never met a deal he hasn't wanted to broker, and harbors dreams of becoming a celebrity in just about any way available to him.
Directors Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel pit the two men against each other, with each vying for our sympathy and our disdain at various points in this Sundance darling. Just when you think you feel sorry for Wood's unfortunate run of bad luck, you find out how much turmoil his addiction issues have caused for his loved ones. About the time you start forgiving Whisnant for his unbridled crassness and learn to love his kooky optimism, you begin to wonder about the toll his fixation on being famous is taking on his supportive wife. Finders Keepers uses both men's strained relationships with their dads and the class resentments each have for the other to showcase what makes America both wonderful and scary, and the freakshow becomes strangely touching.
Winter on Fire
From Maiden we move to Maidan... Maidan Nezalezhnosti, that is. That's the main square in Ukraine's capital of Kiev and the flashpoint for the revolution that occurred their in 2014. Director Evgeny Afineevsky takes us through all 93 days of what started as peaceful student demonstrations that gradually became violent, eventually leading to over 100 deaths, more than 60 disappearances, and nearly 2000 people injured. Led by a generation that had come of age during a time where only democracy was known in their country, the revolution would soon inspire Ukrainians of all ages protesting President Viktor Yanukovych's increasingly corrupt government and their slow lean towards favoring a relationship with Putin's Russia over joining the European Union. The unrest would eventually lead to Yanukovych's ousting, but not before taking a toll on the beautiful square and Kiev's spirited people.
Using a blend of original footage, found footage, and traditional talking-heads-type interviews, Afineevsky easily encapsulates the sprawling messiness of the situation into a potent but digestible depiction of the complicated events that would soon give way to Russian retaliation in the form of the annexation of Crimea. Afineevsky perfectly captures the indomitability and sardonic resourcefulness of the Ukrainian people in one brief passage when the protesters take to the streets wearing pots on their heads after Yanukovych bans helmets and other protective headgear hoping to break up the demonstrations. Violent and at times graphic, Winter on Fire is a powerful illustration of the beauty in people that can shine through even the most harrowing of circumstances.