Director Evgeny Afineevsky On His Emmy-Contending Ukraine Doc ‘Freedom On Fire’ And Putin’s Info Wars: Russian Propaganda Is “Manipulating People, Dividing Countries”

Immediately after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky made a bold prediction.

Ukraine, the country he documented in his 2015 Oscar-nominated film Winter on Fire, would fight Russia’s aggression, he said, “until the last drop of blood.”

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Evidence has shown he did not misread Ukraine’s resolve. The country has withstood continual Russian attacks on its civilian population, constant assault on its infrastructure, and even weathered fluctuating support from the U.S. Congress. The Ukrainian people have remained steadfast – and so, too, has Afineevsky, devoting himself to documenting Ukraine’s effort to remain a sovereign nation.

Director Evgeny Afineevsky attends the photocall for "Freedom On Fire: Ukraine's Fight For Freedom" at the 79th Venice International Film Festival on September 07, 2022 in Venice, Italy.
Director Evgeny Afineevsky at the 79th Venice International Film Festival.

His film Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom – now in contention for News & Documentary Emmys – has screened before lawmakers in Washington, DC, major national security conferences in Europe and North America, and at the Vatican, at a special screening attended by Pope Francis. Afineevsky has returned repeatedly to Ukraine to gather more footage, revising his documentary from the original version that premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival.

“I wanted to show from inside the desire of Ukrainians to fight and fight till the end,” he says, “from the front lines of the war to show the furious fight for their own motherland… That’s why I was updating and updating and updating.

'Freedom on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom'
‘Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom’

“It was important to show that the scope of the atrocities has continued. And it’s not about military targets, as Russia claims, but it’s civilian places. It was also important for me to show that it affects ecology because it’s also an ecological genocide,” he says, citing Russia’s destruction of a dam over the Dnieper River last June, which sent toxic waste from power plants streaming far and wide. (Ukrainian President Zelenskyy called Russia’s act “an environmental bomb of mass destruction”).

What has remained consistent through all the iterations of Freedom on Fire is the opening scene – ordinary Ukrainians gathering in the dimly-lit basement of a building for a very unexpected event, given the circumstances: a standup comedy performance.

“They have resilience, they have dignity, they are ready to die for their motherland. But the most important thing, they have a great sense of humor and humanity,” Afineevsky tells Deadline.

A makeshift memorial to civilians killed in Izyum, Ukraine amid the Russian invasion.
A makeshift memorial to civilians killed in Izyum, Ukraine amid the Russian invasion.

The filmmaker says he learned from Cries from Syria, his 2017 documentary about the devastating civil war in that country, that audiences cannot absorb much graphic footage of violence. In Freedom on Fire, the opening sequence tempers the grim reality above ground.

“That’s why this scene was really important for me,” he says. “It was really important to set the tone for the entire movie.”

The film also serves as a counterweight to the narrative pushed by Russian President Vladimir, that it’s his nation that’s an aggrieved victim. Putin has found mouthpieces for his message – on Capitol Hill. A few days ago, on a podcast hosted by Steve Bannon, Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama called Pres. Zelenskyy a “dictator” and vouchsafed Putin’s benign intentions. “He doesn’t want Ukraine, he doesn’t want Europe,” Tuberville claimed. “He’s got enough land of his own. He just wants to make sure that he does not have United States weapons in Ukraine pointing at Moscow.”

Afineevsky says that purported reading of the situation is utterly and dangerously wrong.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

“I’m always cautioning [people] and saying, ‘Hey, we’re in a World War III and it’s important to stand with Ukraine.’ I think it was a few years ago, Putin had one of his talk shows where he was answering questions. And he asked kids where the Russian borders end. And the kids said, ‘The Bering Strait.’ And Putin said, “No, no, no, no, no. The Russian borders never end.’ And it’s a great sentence to remind people that his ambition does not have any limits,” Afineevsky says. “Putin doesn’t believe in the borders that exist right now. He sees Russia as one big country over the entire globe, basically.”

Ukrainian civilians take cover in 'Freedom On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom'
Ukrainian civilians take cover in ‘Freedom On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom’

Afineevsky sees the West falling prey to Russia’s propaganda machine. “I openly say the war that we are fighting today… is a hybrid war. On one side we do have missiles, bombs that are falling on Ukraine, killing people. It’s not just the frontlines today; it’s everywhere in Ukraine. There is no safe place. But at the same time, there is another side of this war and it’s an information war. Through disinformation, through social media engagement, Russia is manipulating people, dividing countries. We have a great example of that in the United States, and they are dividing the European Union, and they are manipulating people. It’s quite an effective weapon in today’s world. It’s quite an effective weapon.”

The filmmaker adds, “We need to remind our people that today’s propaganda portion of the war is also on our territory. Propaganda, first of all, it’s invisible. Second, it doesn’t need an American visa or European visa. It crosses our border so fast, and it pierces our brains or our friends’ brains and our friends who, without any suspicion, are sometimes reposting things or throwing things in the middle which they’re not even checking. And then the snowball continues and it’s a very dangerous thing.”

Director Evgeny Afineevsky with a Ukrainian journalist featured in 'Freedom on Fire'
Director Evgeny Afineevsky with a Ukrainian journalist featured in ‘Freedom on Fire’

The documentarian’s traditional role of truth seeker and truthteller becomes even more essential in such a polluted information environment. Afineevsky, who was born in what was then the Soviet Union, and now makes his home in the U.S., is continuing his engagement with Ukraine. He’s at work on a new documentary that will focus on children, the war’s youngest victims.

“It’s important for me to give a voice to the kids, to give a voice to the younger generation because it is obvious that Russia is not only trying to destroy Ukraine, they’re also working against the future generation of Ukrainians,” Afineevsky says. “They’re trying to brainwash them, they’re trying to reeducate them, they’re abducting them, they’re trying to change their identity. And I think for me, as somebody who witnessed all these things, who witnessed the war, I wanted to give the voice to the little ones.”

He says despite the trauma many Ukrainian kids have sustained —  some lost limbs to Russian missiles, others lost their parents – the children he has met remain unbroken.

“They can be a great inspiration, exactly in the same way I started Freedom on Fire with the comedy club scene — because I want to show the resilience, the strength, the humanity. So that’s coming in my next project.”

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