Nearly two years after the start of the Russo-Ukrainian war, an audience of locals gathered in the darkened Palo Alto Library to watch Israeli-American filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky’s documentary, Freedom on Fire.
Freedom on Fire is the second installment of Afineevsky’s video journalism series on Ukrainian resistance against Russian oppression, the first of which, Winter on Fire, was nominated for an Oscar in 2015. It offers a candid and brutal portrayal of life during the Russo-Ukrainian War and seeks primarily to educate its audience on the realities of the war and the context surrounding it.
Two local organizations, the Ukraine Support Alliance at Stanford (USAS) and TeleHelp Ukraine, partnered with Afineevsky to organize the event. USAS is a humanitarian, Stanford student-run organization that helps nonprofits collect aid supplies to send to Ukraine and organizes on-campus educational and cultural events, like panels and cooking events, to advocate for Ukranians’ rights. TeleHelp provides support over Zoom from medical professionals in the U.S. to those in Ukraine. Both organizations provided Ukrainian candies and chocolates, like Кара-Кум (Kara-Kum), for the audience to try at the event, and the library displayed a selection of books on the war and Ukrainian history. Members from USAS and TeleHelp spoke before the documentary played about their experiences and how audience members can help with the war through volunteering and educational opportunities.
Tetiana Kondakova, originally from the Donetsk region, which was invaded by Russia in 2014, spoke on how the invasion and the inability to return home has affected her family and fellow Ukrainians as a prelude to the film. She said, “You are considered lucky if everything you own was the only thing you lost. You cannot run from war if you want it to end. You must fight, and there are many ways to do so, including spreading the truth and educating others, because that is exactly what [Russia] doesn’t want.”
Her moving speech served as a segway to Freedom on Fire’s showcase. The film produced an unflinching depiction of the war, focusing on the humanity and resilience of the Ukrainian people. It is multimedia, consisting of live footage of the war, illustrated sequences, evocative interviews with those in Ukraine, vignettes of everyday life in Ukraine, and conflicting narratives between Russian and Ukrainian news coverage sequences.
One audience member said, “It was excellent. Beautiful. I felt the emotions of the people viscerally through the screen. It truly is the Revolution of Dignity.”
Artistically, Afineevsky masters the use of different lighting and composition to convey the tone of the interviewees.
Freedom on Fire’s process distinguishes it from other documentaries. Normally, after movies are finalized, they are not altered. Afineevsky’s films are unique in that he adds to the film as the war progresses and re-releases it to maintain an accurate representation of the events.
After the movie ended, Afineevsky tuned in via Zoom for a Q&A with the audience. Explaining his reasoning for filming the documentary, he said, “I saw how the war started and how the world neglected it…It is my responsibility to share these stories with the world.”
The following is a compilation of questions asked by the audience, and Afineevsky’s response to them.
What do you feel the film is about?
Bravery, dignity, the fight for democracy, civil and human rights. To be together. It is about giving voice to people who need it by using the medium of cinema to share their story across borders… It’s important to keep the movie updated so the world can see the truth from the ground, the humanity of the Ukrainian people versus the barbarity of the Russian government. This is not just a war fought on the ground. The other side of the war is the media, wherein the camera becomes the weapon… Ukraine is fighting both Russia and its media. Propaganda is dangerous. It doesn’t need a visa to pass borders. We are all involved, and if you think you aren’t, then they are winning.
Was it dangerous filming the documentary? How did you go about that?
It was dangerous…but let’s look from another angle, you can be relaxed in Chicago and shot, or you can be scared in Ukraine and shot. You can be shot anywhere. Was I scared? Yes, but I’d rather get shot when I know it’s coming. In Ukraine, you are ready. You are taking your own risks. Calculated risks…Yes, there is trauma. But it is my duty to stop the madness, help the children, and bring truth and their stories to people. Russia was hunting us, the journalists, the truth seekers. Yes, it is dangerous, but that is the risk you take for the future you are trying to create.
Is it hard to get your work onto platforms? What is next for your work?
This coming fall, you will see the next chapter [of my work]. It’s a voice that needs to be heard, very dear and important. The first film, Winter on Fire, was released at the biggest festivals and was nominated for an Oscar in 2015. Now with this second film, American studios don’t want to touch my work. Netflix leaves political movies aside. Studios try to avoid political movies so they can make more money. Those that speak truth to power are harder to get out… As much as the Oscars is about art, it is about politics.
As a filmmaker, how do you balance truth with subjectivity? Who do you make your films for?
I try to appeal to the general audience, which, to me, is the mothers in Ukraine, scared for their sons, and the mothers all across the globe. The doctors, the journalists. I give them this voice because it is their war. They are my heroes. I don’t care about viewership or the government. It’s the voice of the people that must be heard on the big screen. People must understand that this is not just a war of two years–it is of ten, of 50. The Ukrainian people have been fighting longer than the rest of the world is aware.
How do you make use of your status as a filmmaker, and what can the rest of us at home do?
Education is a power. Right now, the media’s main focus is Gaza, and who knows what’s next. Of course, it is important, it’s all important, but we switch focus so quickly. We can’t succumb to fatigue and forget, move on to the next big thing. We must keep Ukraine relevant. It’s important to educate…to explain how this war affects all of us. To make [others] feel the pain of the Ukrainian people. Make them understand that the victory of the Ukrainian people is the victory of the world. We can only win together. What can you do? You must be a defense for the democracy of the US and protect against propaganda by spreading the truth. Educate others…this is what you must do.
You can watch Freedom on Fire on iTunes, Amazon Prime, Google Play, and Apple TV or for free at this link