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Freedom on Fire: A film about Ukraine’s fight for freedom

Joel Searls Avatar
ukraine documentary
Photo courtesy of Donbas Frontlineer and Andriy Dubchak.

Evgeny Afineevsky has once again brought the real-life atrocities of war in Ukraine’s fight for freedom from Russia with his eye for the camera, heart for the story and mind for making it all happen. Afineevsky is the Academy Award-nominated director of Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, which came out in 2015 and can be watched on Netflix right now. His most recent work is Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, which is another breathtaking and heart-crushing look at the current fight in Ukraine and shows how much the country needs our support against tyranny.

film poster for freedom on fire ukraine
Freedom on Fire

His work with documentaries has brought him much attention, both good and bad. Afineevsky is critically acclaimed and world-renowned for his speaking out against such countries as Russia and Syria, through his work. He has been poisoned in 2015 at the Toronto Film Festival, and he had a lawsuit filed against him in 2017 for his film Cries from Syria (2017) and is referred to as “Al Qaeda in Hollywood” by Russia Today and Sputnik. During a recent Q & A session post-screening of the film at Doc NY, Afineevsky and one of his colleagues were verbally berated and harassed by members of the audience. He is the target of Russian propaganda and has stood up to the Kremlin.

journalist from freedom on fire ukraine
Natalia Nagorna, a Ukrainian journalist. Photo courtesy of Evgeny Afineevsky.

Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom had its World Premiere at the 79th Venice International Film Festival, where it was recognized with the Kineo Award and its North American Premiere at Toronto International Film Festival.

The film has also been selected to screen at Hamptons International Film Festival, Mill Valley Film Festival, Seattle International Film Festival DocFest (Closing Night), SCAD Savannah Film Festival, DOC NYC, Budapest International Documentary Festival, Stockholm International Film Festival, Tokyo International Film Festival, Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival (Czech Republic), Movies on War Film Festival (Norway) and Eastern Neighbors Film Festival (Netherlands). Freedom on Fire is also the recipient of the Brizzolara Family Foundation Award for Films of Conflict & Resolution (Hamptons), the Power of Cinema Award (Mill Valley), as well as SCAD’s Inaugural Daring Documentarian Award, and has been nominated for the Critics Choice Documentary Award in the Best Political Documentary Category.

freedom on fire ukraine refugees being evacuated
Refugees being evacuated by Ukrainian military service members. Photo courtesy of Donbas Frontlineer and Andriy Dubchak.

The film takes us into the inmost depths of the war in Ukraine and that they are fighting their utmost for their freedom. The documentary was filmed in a rush during the first six months of the invasion. We get to see up close the real people involved, the real civilians greatly harmed by the war and the real responses at the moment from everyone including children. Many of the children seemed to have accepted this strange, hostile new world as “normal” for them, which is heartbreaking. We witness the carnage to the homes, the cities and the villages throughout the war-torn country. Afineevsky brings deft direction to the film and makes a gut-level impact on how critical it is for us to support Ukraine in its fight for survival.

Director Evgeny Afineevsky reviewing some footage
Director Evgeny Afineevsky reviewing some footage. Photo courtesy of Evgeny Afineevsky

We do get some history about Ukraine and how it got to its current state, which the film is narrated by Dame Helen Mirren. We see civilians take on Russian tanks, protests in the streets and mothers crying that their young sons must now bear arms against the Russian aggressors. We learn about Russian soldiers shooting cars full of families and about how the displaced refugees are fleeing for their lives as incoming artillery shells fall around them. Many times families are at their homes when the violence starts. These homes are shown throughout as they resemble a swiss cheese structure. Children sit around in bunkers singing nursery rhymes as only camping lamps light them—a childhood end in many ways.

Afineevsky brings to us even members of the clergy who have seen the horrors and abuse up close. From such people, we get an inside look at how the politics of the region play into the current state of Ukraine. Elements of the Cold War mixed with the Twilight Zone bleed over such as Ukrainians hiding out in old Soviet bunkers as their homeland is shelled by Russian aggressors. Our next person to meet is Anna Zaitseva and her family. She is a teacher, has a baby and her husband served with the Ukrainian Marines. After the war began he joined the Azov Regiment to fight the invaders. On May 16, 2022, he and his comrades were been captured by the Russians and are being held as Prisoners of War.

Anna Zaitzeva and her child
Anna Zaitzeva and her child. Photo courtesy of Evgeny Afineevsky.

Throughout the film the gravity of the situation is apparent, yet people continue to try to go on with their lives in the face of such turmoil. It is a testament to the human spirit and the citizens of Ukraine in that their spirit is indomitable. There are some sequences and elements that must be watched to gain a full understanding and experience, especially as the situations and war crimes increase in their evil, which leads me to leave the rest of the film for your viewing.

Father Andrey Zelinskyy SJ, a military chaplain, provided an interview for the film
Father Andrey Zelinskyy SJ, a military chaplain, provided an interview for the film. Photo courtesy of Evgeny Afineevsky

Afineevsky shared with me during a sit-down interview about the further background of the project. He brought up the fact that there are no movies in Hollywood about Ukraine and that he did not intend to do a second movie on the country. He views himself as a realist, and that the war, “it’s not far from us.” He believes in the strong potential for nuclear weapon use and that a peaceful country in Europe is in combat with a global superpower that we, “…technically are in World War III. We have international boots on the ground and we have international weapons, so technically it has the same as what goes into World War II.” He stated, “The faster we understand this situation, the faster we will act because until then we will be denying the fact of this war.” He believes the war goes beyond Ukraine and Russia and even so, more innocents will die. He stated, that we are being, “poisoned by Russia on a media front because this is a hybrid war, it’s not WWI or WWII, where it’s only on the ground, it’s WWIII where you also a media space…warfare with [the] camera, and you have real bullets and real bombs.”

Evgeny and Natalia going over some of their work
Evgeny and Natalia going over some of their work. Photo courtesy of Evgeny Afineevsky

He believes that conventional weapons are destructive and even more so the weapons of the media, which have a much longer effect on the battlespace. “If we neglect right now, what will be next? If it’s nuclear we can forget about tomorrow,” and, “We are all inside of this war. Warfare, media, camera, lies…this war is everywhere. It is the war of the 21st century.” He also said, “Truth is an enemy of the state. You can see [the] truth in this film.” He also brought up the imminent danger to Ukraine and the world with the country housing the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe. The plant is in danger of missiles, artillery and further explosive weapons from aggressors. Not to mention Ukraine was the site of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

bridge out from freedom on fire ukraine
Photo courtesy of Donbas Frontliner and Andriy Dubchak.

Afineevsky spoke about having taken three trips to Ukraine through the war and that he has much of his prior team from his 2015 documentary Winter on Fire. The film has nine editors working on it so it could be edited in three months. They had five editors in Ukraine, three in the Czech Republic and two in the US. He also discussed how he has been stalked by Russian agents via his social media and on his phone. He has received calls from unknown numbers and people that are unsettling, to say the least. He has been targeted across the globe. His main goal with the documentary is to stop the war in Ukraine and to bring awareness to what is happening there. The best way to support Ukraine is through United 24: https://u24.gov.ua/ and to support the film.

family from freedom on fire ukraine
Photo courtesy of Donbas Frontlineer and Andriy Dubchak.

He wants people to understand why people are fighting, what are the causes of the war and most important part, that this affects the entire world. The propaganda and the lies have affected our elections and our lives. We have been targeted by the warfare known as the “media” and we are dealing with an invention, the “Big Lie,” from Nazi Germany and Joeseph Goebbels,

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

Every dictator knows that truth is the biggest threat to their power. Afineevsky is taking human stories within the war and connecting them with other humans, especially as the war is not a typical combat situation. He is trying to connect the humanity of the struggles within Ukraine and connect with the humanity outside of the war to make the “human bridge.” Afineevsky has done a great job in his mission of bringing the real war to the public and in striving to end the conflict. The documentary will be released in 2023. Check Freedom on Fire out!

train station from freedom on fire ukraine
Photo courtesy of Donbas Frontlineer and Andriy Dubchak.