What does a country look like when it is under attack, protecting its displaced citizens and fighting back? Something like the humanity and resilience seen in Evgeny Afineevsky’s gritty documentary from the heartland of embattled Ukraine, Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.
The word “freedom” twice in a title? If it’s that important, absolutely, especially when you’ve already broken a searing message from there: Afineevsky’s Oscar-nominated 2015 film Winter on Fire, about Russia’s bloody retaliation for its neighbor’s Maidan uprising. It was also subtitled “Ukraine’s Struggle for Freedom”. The Maidan protests signaled to the world how important it was for Ukrainians to become a Europe-linked democracy, detached from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism. But Russia’s invasion earlier this year sent another terrible signal: no one in Ukraine was safe.
It’s not surprising, then, that Afineevsky — a Russian-born filmmaker who became an American citizen more than a decade ago — sprung back into action (with 42 other cameramen) in the early months of the war to feel the pulse of a citizenry up to the pushed limits, and to document the cost of Putin’s aggression. With its mix of collected videos, on-site scenes in more than a dozen cities, interviews with Ukrainians (including some dissenting Russian voices), and media coverage, “Freedom on Fire” is a pulsating jumble of hearts and minds content in the midst of war and rubble.
Survival may mean fleeing a bombed city, even to another country, but whatever Ukrainians did – leave or stay – their determination to remain united gave them unusual armor to withstand the early shocks. We meet volunteers preparing food for hospitals and emergency shelters, doctors offering their services, and a tattoo artist who has taken on the task of helping bury the dead (although not before sipping a few Molotov cocktails for the first few days threw at Russian tanks from his window). ).
One of Afineevsky’s key subjects is Ukrainian war reporter Natalia Nagorna, who sums up the prevailing mood in the country when she says: “Real courage is when you are afraid but act anyway.” Later we see Nagorna’s composure break, as she tries to give an on-camera account of another horrific blast that kills civilians, until a nearby Ukrainian soldier who recognizes her shouts encouraging “we’re all together” words. (In the end, Afineevsky dedicates the film to journalists and storytellers everywhere “who today risk their lives” to get such stories out, and there are times in Freedom on Fire when you realize how dangerous it was to keep cameras rolling keep. )
A large part of Afineevsky’s focus is on families and how children cope in basements, hospital beds and shelters. Some sing, many draw (often for the soldiers), and there are wishes for peace. We also meet a group of guys who would love to see superpowers bestowed on Ukrainians in this comic book style battle. The experience of a young mother whose husband fought in a paramilitary regiment also highlights Russia’s propaganda efforts – when she was interrogated as a prisoner of war, she later discovered that Russian media were promoting her story as one of them “rescued”. But as a Ukrainian comedian wryly puts it in a scene from an underground stand-up show, how can an already liberated people be liberated?
There are times that show the speed at which Freedom on Fire has come about, namely in a hastily animated tale of the region’s turmoil, told by Helen Mirren, which feels cramped and how difficult it can be to keep track to keep track of characters, locations and war developments. But there is also power in the unaffected urgency of Afineevsky’s approach, the ragged glimpses of upside-down life like smelling salts for anyone feeling news-weary after nine months of conflict.
“Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Struggle for Freedom”
In Russian and Ukrainian with English subtitles
Duration: 1 hour 54 minutes
To play: Begins December 2, Laemmle Noho 7, North Hollywood
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-12-02/review-freedom-on-fire-ukraine-evgeny-afineevsky ‘Freedom on Fire’ review: Ukraine and the courage to take action