With his new film, acclaimed documentarist Evgeny Afineevsky wants us never to forget the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine.

Following up the critical success for his films on the Ukrainian Maidan uprising and the Syrian conflict, director Evgeny Afineevsky is back with stories of both ordinary and exceptional people living through the Russian war against Ukraine in his new documentary, Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom. The film chronicles stories both serious and light-hearted, from a young mother’s experience raising her newborn for over two months underground in a factory in Mariupol to a subterranean comedy show. The director was recently in Prague to accompany the screening of his film with a panel discussion, an event organized jointly by the embassies of Ukraine and the United States.

Afineevsky, born in Russia, now holds both Israeli and U.S. citizenship and resides in Los Angeles. His 2014 documentary, Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, was nominated for both an Academy Award and an Emmy. His 2017 film about the conflict in Syria, Cries From Syria, received four Emmy nominations. He also released a documentary in 2020, Francesco, on the life and teachings of Pope Francis.

Evgeny Afineevsky in 2015. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In short and long interviews running through the film, Afineevsky follows a cast of Ukrainians through their vastly different experiences navigating the war. While his footage of his interviewees makes up the bulk of the film, phone and professional camera footage by more than 20 other people, along with news clips, accentuate the stories told in the interviews. In one scene, Afineevsky and the Ukrainian soldier he is trying to interview flee on camera after a missile lands dangerously near. Just seconds before, someone jokes that these strikes are part of the symphony of sounds local people experience every morning.

During the Prague panel discussion, Afineevsky said the speed with which Freedom on Fire was shot and released was critical to its meaning and impact. He recounted his initial reaction after Russia launched the invasion on 24 February, believing all the attention would subside after a few months if the war continued beyond that. He quickly built upon earlier connections from the filming of Winter on Fire in the aftermath of the 2013-2014 uprising against then Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych, by calling on previous interviewees and obtaining early permission to film in the war zone from Oleksii Reznikov, the Ukrainian defense minister. He started filming in the unoccupied areas of Ukraine just days after the invasion, worked all through the first months of the war, until late August, and wrapped just a week before the film’s premiere in September at the Venice Film Festival.

The other critical components that allowed Freedom on Fire’s story to come together were the interviewees he followed. “I wanted to stray away from politicians, so I found normal people,” the director said during the discussion. “I tried to find characters that could tell me through their lives and experiences certain elements from the eight years of this war.” He is referring to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the event he considers to be the start of its war against Ukraine.

Destroyed vehicles line a Ukrainian street. Screen shot from Freedom on Fire via California Film Institute YouTube page.

From a soldier to a young girl constrained to living in a bunker to a mother whose son recently went to battle sewing protective vests, his subjects give many perspectives on life during wartime.

Afineevsky’s proclaimed “main character” throughout the film was Ukrainian journalist Nataliia Nagorna, whom Afineevsky follows as she discusses her wartime experiences and her own reporting, where her resilience is evident through the lows of her fending off her emotions as she broadcasts for the 1+1 TV channel and the highs of her infectious smile lighting up the screen. The journalist’s previous experience following the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, combined with her charm, makes for a reliable yet uplifting narrator to guide viewers through both her and Afineevsky’s interviews.

An image of Ukrainian war journalist Nataliia Nagorna from Freedom on Fire. Courtesy of TIFF.

Another interviewee viewers get to know is Hanna Zaitseva, the mother of a young child who was stuck underground in the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol as Russian forces laid siege to the plant from February to May. Zaitseva safely escaped and now resides in Germany, but currently has no contact with her husband, who joined the Ukrainian army and is now a prisoner of war in Russia. “You don’t know if you will see your friends or see the sun,” she said, as she sat on the Prague panel. “This is when you choose to either lose hope or have hope.”

Afineevsky’s passion and hopes for the Ukrainian people do not go unseen in Freedom on Fire. Its harrowing, engrossing footage delivers a high-quality experience that allows viewers partly to grasp the pain and fear his subjects went through, provoking a strong emotional reaction and accomplishing the director’s goal of keeping the war from fading in the eyes of the world.

Charlotte Zera is a Tulane University student currently interning at Transitions.