The faster we provide Ukraine with weapons, the faster this war ends, says Ukrainian film director Evgeny Afineevsky.
“Look at what they’ve done”, says a shocked grandmother as the camera turns to her burning home. “Those two idiots. One’s in Belarus and one in Russia, and the whole world can’t stop them!”
So goes one of the many emotional moments in Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, a new documentary on Russia’s war in Ukraine by Oscar and Emmy-nominated director Evgeny Afineevsky and producer Shahida Tulaganova. Following the massive success of his previous documentary on Ukraine, Winter on Fire, Afineevsky revisits his homeland as it faces one year of brutal invasion and resistance.
While the documentary is not yet public, Emerging Europe had the opportunity to attend a premiere in London for Europe Day 2023. Afineevsky, pictured above, hopes his screenings will help show policy makers and wider society the reality of war and why it’s important to continue supporting Ukraine.
Throughout 2014, Afineevsky was asked many times whether he’d make another documentary on the war following the success of Winter on Fire.
”We were filming in 2014-15 and I had material, but I stated openly that I don’t plan to tell any more stories on Ukraine and hoped other Ukrainians will tell the story of this war. I was hoping the world would be shaken by the images of the war, I was hoping the movies would come, but in 2022 the war started. Nothing happened, the world was ignoring that the war was there,” he tells Emerging Europe.
“It shocked me because I saw how easily Putin started a full-fledged invasion. I went back to my team and I told the story of Ukraine’s fight for freedom. Because of the realisation that the world was neglecting eight years of this war and knowing that, if this is repeated again, the media attention will disappear. I feel my work as a storyteller is important right now. Once the attention dies down, I can show this movie.”
Afineevsky’s previous experiences filming in conflict zones led him to dedicate the documentary to the journalists fighting to get the truth of this war out to the world.
“When in 2016 I was filming Syria, I witnessed how so many journalists were gone. I lost friends. We all lost people who were fighting for freedom. I know this war isn’t about just bombs and rockets, it’s about cameras, weaponising media. People who were on this front, fighting against propaganda, to show the atrocities. They were brutally killed in April and May. This made me dedicate this movie to journalists. The main character is from Maidan, a journalist, and she helps me tell this story.”
The shocking scenes of conflict remind us that Ukraine is fighting for the whole world. The message is clear – if we close our eyes again, we risk another escalation.
“The world needs to remember that in the 1990s Ukraine had thousands of nuclear weapons. [Then came] the Budapest Memorandum when the West guaranteed protection to Ukraine in order to make the world safe from nukes. It was a guarantee to Ukraine to protect her,” stresses Afineevsky, who says that if Ukraine didn’t give up its nukes, this war may not have happened.
“Russia violated this, and the West agreed to it. We need to remind the West that our governments signed this Memorandum and today we are the ones who need to stand up to this war,” he adds.
Working through conflict
The war posed a great challenge to the production schedule of the movie. The hard work of Afineevsky’s team, though, ultimately paid off.
“I’m lucky because I have all the team there and it was easy to assemble them. Winter on Fire took 93 days in one place – Maidan. Here, it was crucial that we made sure we documented everywhere. We had a bigger team, but we had time issues.”
The Covid-19 pandemic had an upside as it helped the team learn to edit remotely, cutting down on travel time and greatly speeding up the process. The most important thing, however, was the sheer dedication of Afineevsky and his team, such as the narration which Helen Mirren recorded on her own.
“No one believed we could do it on time. We started in the last days of February. I delivered the movie on August 31 at the Venice Film Festival. The organiser invited us without even seeing the movie. The support was beautiful. It’s hard to find a home for documentaries covering political topics and give attention to this war.”
A battle for the world
For Afineevsky, the most important thing is that the world understands the danger Russia poses to global peace and does not renege on its support for Ukraine.
“If we distance ourselves and stop watching what’s happening, we’ll find ourselves in another escalation. A nuclear escalation. We must stand united as a community, just like the people of Maidan.”
His goal is for the new documentary to wake people up to the dangers of war, like Winter on Fire did many years ago, and show that “together we can win”.
“Look how Ukraine united, how people in Maidan united and won. Together we can win this, but if the world isn’t united, if it leaves Ukraine, who will be next?” he asks, stressing that if Russia is not stopped, the nukes may one day reach all of us.
To this end, Mr Afineevsky hopes to organise many more screenings for decision makers and the public alike.
“When the politicians send aid to Ukraine, the ordinary people need to know why it’s important. As we know, ordinary people did more to help Ukrainians when the war started.”
A wake-up call for the West
As a message to Emerging Europe’s readership, Afineevsky stresses that the West and Russia made a promise to protect Ukraine in Budapest.
“Every generation has a dictator, the 19th century had Napolean, the 20th had Hitler. In the 21st century we have Putin and his imperial desires.”
He warns that if the West does not take the war seriously, like in 2014, Russia’s ambitions will only grow until the war reaches Poland and the Baltics.
“That’s why it’s important all European leaders, together, stand with Ukraine and help defeat this enemy. Putin has called this a war the West is waging against Russia. It’s the opposite, Russia is waging a war against the West,” he adds.
“That’s why it’s vital to protect freedoms across the globe, to protect the future of this planet because the longer the war lasts, the higher the chances of nuclear escalation. The faster we provide Ukraine with weapons, the faster this war ends.”
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