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SIFF DocFest 2022: The urgency of ‘Freedom on Fire’

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The closing night film of SIFF DocFest 2022, Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (7/8), has a complicated conundrum–it simultaneously feels both (distressingly) timely while being (heartbreakingly) out of date. Filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky’s profile of the first months of Russia’s war on Ukraine is an astonishing and urgent plea to the world to pay attention. Somehow Afineevsky cobbled together six months of footage from the war–from Russia’s invasion in February 2022 through August 2022–creating a visceral documentary that managed to debut at the Toronto Film Festival a month later.

The images and the stories in Freedom on Fire are unfortunately timeless, despite all that has happened since August. (Just this week, Putin escalated again to a brutal level, bombing a dozen Ukrainian cities in retaliation for the destruction of an important bridge linking Crimea to Russia.) But that doesn’t diminish the horrors portrayed in the film, from the bombing of a maternity hospital, to the destruction of a theater that was serving as a shelter for civilians, to an elderly man nonchalantly pointing out a severed, charred hand to the cameraman. Now internationally-known cities like Bucha, Kharkiv, Lviv, Kyiv, and Mariupol are highlighted, and we meet various Ukrainians–a priest, a solider, an elderly woman, a group of kids. Despite their fear and anger, they have a resilience and spirit that can’t be denied. Perhaps the steady soul of the film is journalist Natalia Nagorna who states, “If the news is out, everything is fine…” At one point, she tries to report a story, but can’t speak because of tears. As she chokes up, a car of soldiers drives by and hollers an encouragement to her, “Don’t cry, Natalia!”

Unlike watching clips on the news or the internet, Freedom on Fire demands your attention for two hours. It is brutal and it is important that you don’t look away. I imagine that the film will be updated with events since August–after that, I desperately hope it won’t need to be again and again.

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