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‘Freedom on Fire’ brings personal stories from Ukraine’s war onto the big screen
MILL VALLEY, California – Director Evgeny Afineevsky is best known for bringing to the screen one of the most pivotal moments in the modern history of Ukraine – the 2013-2014 EuroMaidan Revolution – in the film known as "Winter on Fire."
Now he is putting a spotlight on a no less historic moment for Ukraine – Russia’s full-scale invasion.
Afineevsky’s new documentary, “Freedom on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom” brings urgent human stories of Russia’s all-out war in Ukraine. The vignettes follow Ukrainian civilians, children, and soldiers after Feb. 24, 2022, capturing unity, hope, and resilience in bomb shelters and on the battlefield.
The film was presented at the Mill Valley Film Festival on Oct. 14.
“It was important for me to take a story of the mother who every night prays for her child to wake up the next morning and tell it to the mother who every morning here enjoys looking at her child, watching him grow,” Afineevsky said in the public Q&A after the screening. For him, “camera became a weapon” as some of the battles in the war shifted to the media realm, with each side fighting for narratives and support.
In addition to the standing ovation, the director received the Power of Cinema Award from the festival’s founder Mark Fishkin, who “couldn’t find a documentary more important, more curt than this film.”
“Through the power of cinema, we can unite people across the globe. We can unite them with Ukraine and we can win this battle against darkness,” Afineevsky said.
Director Evgeny Afineevsky (C), Dmytro Kushneruk, Ukrainian consul general in San Francisco (L), and Mark Fishkin, founder of the Mill Valley Film Festival, at the premiere of the documentary “Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” at the Mill Valley Film Festival on Oct. 14, 2022. (Photo: Tommy Lau/Courtesy of Dmytro Kushneruk)
Afinnevsky, born in Russia’s Kazan, moved to Israel in the 1990s before eventually settling in the U.S. When stressing the urgency to pick sides in the war, he said Russia is “forever closed” to him.
His most acclaimed work, “Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom,” follows the EuroMaidan Revolution, which ousted a pro-Kremlin president and defined Ukraine’s aspiration toward European integration. It earned him nominations for Emmy and Academy Awards in 2016 as well as Toronto International Film Festival People’s Choice Award.
Between his projects in Ukraine, he also directed “Cries from Syria,” a project that centered on perspectives of the Syrian civil society in the conflict. Afineevsky’s movie on the leadership of Pope Francis, “Francesco,” helped get “back out of the warzone” and became a therapeutic experience.
He didn’t plan to come back to Ukraine for another project. But when the war began, he says he had to overcome the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from working in Ukraine and Syria to use his medium to galvanize solidarity.
For one of the audience members, Kateryna Korniyko, the premiere also brought a much-awaited reunion. She last saw Afineevsky at the premiere of “Winter on Fire” seven years ago in Kyiv. In his 2015 Netflix documentary, she shared her experience joining the EuroMaidan Revolution, as a medic. The meet-up with the director in California, where she has been based since 2018, ended up in “endless hugs until tearing up.”
Before the premiere of Afineevsky’s new film, Korniyko was scared to watch the movie because of her PTSD — she hasn’t rewatched “Winter on Fire” since 2015. But the moments of light puncturing through the narratives in the documentary amazed her.
“Despite a very difficult plot line which reflects what’s happening in Ukraine, there are small drops of something very very bright, like children who dream of a tyrannosaurus for the Ukrainian Armed Forces,” Korniyko said.
After the screening, Korniyko's 14-year-old stepdaughter, who is normally reluctant to discuss the war, asked her about the resilience of children in the movie — she couldn’t believe they kept up the smiles and the games in the shelters.
Some audience members asked the director for specific steps to help Ukraine in the fight.
“The faster the world gives Ukraine weapons that we asked for from the beginning of this war, the faster will this world be more in peace,” Afineevsky said. He outlined some individual contributions — calling representatives, spreading the word on social media, and donating to Ukrainian non-governmental organizations.
As the movie premiers at the festivals, from Venice to California, the team has not finalized a wider distribution plan for the networks. In the meantime, the director plans to update the movie with new footage and connect with nonprofits for screenings. The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also joined the efforts, from helping to make the festival entries after deadlines to organizing screenings.
“The Foreign Ministry has been working with Evgeny (Afineevsky) for a long time, since ‘Winter on Fire.’ When he told us about this idea for the movie, we were very supportive.” Ukrainian Consul General in San Francisco Dmytro Kushneruk said. Soon, he plans to organize a screening for the entire diplomatic corps in San Francisco to help stress the urgency of unity in aid to Ukraine.
“With this movie, it is easier for us, as diplomats and for the Ukrainian community to deliver these messages of what is happening in Ukraine to people who are here, locally,” Kushneruk said. “Even though they watch the news, it is just a different thing when you watch personal stories.”