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'Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom' gives a voice to the voiceless after Putin invasion

"I wanted to show how this Ukrainian nation, ... they can look into death's eye and love," director Evgeny Afineevsky says

Following the Academy Award-nominated documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky follows the war in Ukraine from the Maidan protests to Vladimir Putin's 2022 full-scale attack and invasion in Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (opening the Human Rights Watch Canada Film Festival).

Updated for the Canadian premiere on March 8 to document recent events in Ukraine, Freedom on Fire is a gripping, gritty and beautifully captured film that shows this humanitarian crisis from the perspective of journalists, mothers, children, soldiers, doctors and volunteers across Ukraine (filmed in over 20 Ukrainian cities), with the documentary narrated by Dame Helen Mirren.

“Eight years passed, the war was raging. Nobody was paying attention to this war that started in 2014 and with this full-scale invasion last year, I found myself in the situation that ... I realized that I need to tell the second chapter of the fight for freedom for Ukrainian people. At the same time, I really neede to go back to Maidan and show what led to this full-scale invasion. … That's how a few days after the beginning of the invasion, I started to do this movie.”

“Eight years passed, the war was raging. Nobody was paying attention to this war that started in 2014 and with this full-scale invasion last year, I found myself in the situation that ... I realized that I need to tell the second chapter of the fight for freedom for Ukrainian people. At the same time, I really needed to go back to Maidan and show what led to this full-scale invasion. … That's how a few days after the beginning of the invasion, I started to do this movie.”

I realized that I need to tell the second chapter of the fight for freedom for Ukrainian people.

Photo from documentary
Photo from documentary "Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom" (Donbas Frontline/Andriy Dubchak)

'Propaganda pierces our homes and destroys intellectual brains'

Afineevsky’s main subject in the film is journalist Natalia Nagorna who underscores the perspective of the Ukrainian people fighting for survival, having to make the choice to flee or stay, while we also see the reporter battle terrifying blasts to do her job. Afineevsky dedicates Freedom on Fire to journalists who are "risking their lives" to tell these stories.

The filmmaker also highlights that there is a "hybrid war" in Ukraine, where civilians across the entire country are dying from bombs and missiles, while media is being used in warfare in the propaganda involved in this war, which Afineevsky addresses in Freedom on Fire.

“I think you can't explain the situation in today's World War III without the notion of propaganda,” he said. “Unfortunately, many dictators of the 21st century adopted the playbook of Joseph Goebbels, [minister of propaganda for the Nazis, under Adolf Hitler].”

“I think that's really important to bring to ... today's audience, specifically that ... propaganda pierces our homes and destroys intellectual brains. I think that's why specifically, it's important that people can understand that we not only have war on the ground, we also have war inside of the media, and we need to learn to see what is white and what is black. Not just to take everything that is given to us on our social media, or sometimes in the news.”

Afineevsky added that the importance of this notion is what led him to put a particular focus on Russian propaganda in the film.

“Many Russian people who supported Putin and supporting this war, they weren’t able to see what is white and what is black, because their brains are poisoned,” Afineevsky said. “That's why for me, when I can see that the media and ... the camera became a weapon, ... I need to emphasize this."

"Propaganda is also affecting some other things. We had situations with our elections in United States where propaganda was playing a huge [role]. We had a situation where lies were circulated with regards to the last election, specifically. ... So propaganda is a huge element of our society and if we do not educate people about this issue, we will be facing more wars and more division in our communities, and our societies and our world."

Photo from documentary
Photo from documentary "Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom" (Donbas Frontline/Andriy Dubchak)

'I always try to give a voice to the voiceless'

What makes Freedom on Fire particularly impactful and eye opening is Afineevsky's strong focus on people and families, in bunkers and in hospitals amidst the destruction.

“I always try to give a voice to the voiceless and I think in this movie, I tried to focus on ordinary people on the ground who are suffering from this war, but ... showing their resilience, their courage, their determination,” Afineevsky said.

“I wanted to show how this Ukrainian nation, despite all the difficulties, despite all the war, despite all the deaths, they can look into death's eye and love. I think, to have such a great sense of humour, despite all the [tragedy] around, was really important for me, to show how people ... have a fighting spirit and have a great sense of humour.”

How the filmmaker succeeds in showing the humanity, the love and the humour of the people in Ukraine is evident right at the beginning of documentary, which starts with a stand-up comedy show being put on to entertain people staying in a bomb shelter.

“I tried to allow people to understand what is this all about. ... This was not about just Ukraine, Ukraine is standing as the shield towards the European Union, towards freedom, towards democracy," Afineevsky said. "It's really important for this movie to show a great example of a united nation not on their knees, ... they will be standing and fighting for the future, for democracy, for freedom, ... for a free and democratic Ukraine in the future."

"At the same time I wanted to create a call for action. ... People can connect to my characters ... to understand [what is at stake]."

The Human Rights Watch Canada Film Festival runs from March 8 to March12 in-person at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, and March 13 to March 19 on Hot Docs digital platform. All screenings are free.