‘Freedom on Fire’ Film Review: Ukrainian Documentary Faces Horror, Finds Humanity

·4-min read
Courtesy of TIFF

A few minutes before the North American premiere of “Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom,” director Evgeny Afineesvky summed up his state of mind in a single word: “exhausted.”

That makes sense, because “Freedom on Fire” screened at the Toronto International Film Festival about six months after Afineevsky and his team began working on it, barely more than a month after its final footage was filmed and only a few weeks after Helen Mirren recorded narration for a scene that comes early in the documentary.

For Afineevsky, who landed Oscar and Emmy nominations for 2015’s “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom,” this sequel of sorts was made in a six-month rush, including just three months of editing after Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February of this year. “The urgency of the movie,” the Russian-born director told the audience before the Tuesday morning TIFF screening, “is to not neglect the situation right now.”

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Certainly, urgency is a hallmark of “Freedom on Fire,” a harrowing document shot by dozens of people inside Ukrainian cities as the Russian army conducted a bombing campaign and an invasion that seemingly targeted civilians, despite Vladimir Putin’s claims that Russia was there to “demilitarize” and “denazify” the country, and to somehow “free” it – though as more than one person in the film points out, the Russian offensive has resulted in ordinary citizens being freed from their lives, their homes, their families.

The director’s first film about Ukraine, “Winter on Fire,” was an on-the-ground look at the 2013-2014 Maidan uprising, in which student protests against the Russian-backed president drew a brutal response but resulted in the removal of the president. There was a note of triumph in that film because of how the protesters achieved at least a few goals, though Ukraine’s move away from Russian influence and toward a democratic government prompted Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the subsequent Donbas War and eventually the 2022 invasion.

There are fewer obvious victories in “Freedom on Fire,” with its grim footage of Ukrainian cities that have been all but destroyed by the Russian military and its particularly heartbreaking scenes of children living in bomb shelters or buildings partially reduced to rubble. “I am 7 years old today,” one boy says evenly into the camera as he stands in the doorway of a bomb-damaged room. “This is my home. Thanks to the saviors from Russia who did this.”

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You don’t necessarily expect brutal sarcasm from a 7-year-old, but the real strength of “Freedom on Fire” is how it finds those human moments in the middle of devastation. There’s the man who points out how shrapnel holes in the roof of a hanger-like building look like stars in the night sky; the chamber-music ensemble playing Bach for people who have taken shelter underground; and the standup comedian who does his act in what seems to be a basement bomb shelter, genially savaging the vaunted Russian army which, he said, had been compared to the fearsome orcs in “The Lord of the Rings.”

“Orcs are scary,” he points out. “Russian soldiers are more like the Oompa Loompas on bath salts.”

The devastation caused by those Russian soldiers is on full display in “Freedom on Fire,” which can be hard to watch. But the film is less a catalogue of horrors than a tribute to the people who look for strength despite those horrors; it continually finds moments of grace, humanity and even beauty that seem almost unfathomable in these circumstances.

It also reveals some real heroes – not just the Ukrainian soldiers who go out of their way to bring food to children, but the mothers who bring up babies who don’t see grass for the first six months of their lives, and journalists who put themselves at risk because while the news may be grim, the fact that people are still giving you the news is comforting.

TV correspondent Natalia Nagorna in particular emerges as a vital voice for the Ukrainian people, and perhaps a key that allowed Afineevsky to pull this film together so quickly during a war. The urgency she has for keeping people in her country informed seems of a piece with Afineevsky’s urgency to tell the story now, while the fight is continuing.

“Freedom on Fire” was finished so late that it was only a last-minute entry to the Venice and Toronto festivals, but the TIFF screening clearly shows that it’ll have an impact on any audience that sees it. “We’re trying to see how we can screen the movie on the streets of this world,” Afineevsky said in the post-screening Q&A. “We need to allow these voices to be heard.”

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