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Review:  ‘Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom’ arrives with gritty urgency

A scene of a soldier carrying a child while civilians follow in the documentary "Freedom on Fire."
A scene from the documentary “Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.”
(Andriy Dubchak/Winter on Fire Production)
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What does a country look like in the grip of being invaded, protecting its displaced citizens and fighting back? Something like the humanity and resilience on display in Evgeny Afineevsky’s gritty documentary from inside embattled Ukraine, “Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.”

The word “freedom” twice in one title? If it’s that important, absolutely, especially if you’ve made one searing dispatch from there already: Afineevsky’s Oscar-nominated 2015 film “Winter on Fire,” about Russia’s bloody retaliation to its neighbor’s Maidan uprising. It, too, was subtitled “Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.” The Maidan protests signaled to the world how important it was to Ukrainians that they become a Europe-linked democracy divorced from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism. But Russia’s invasion earlier this year sent another horrifying signal: Nobody in Ukraine was safe.

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It’s not surprising, then, that Afineevsky — a Russian-born filmmaker who became an American citizen more than a decade ago — would spring back into action in the first months of the war (with 42 other camerapersons) to get the pulse of a citizenry pushed to the limits, and to document the cost of Putin’s aggression. With its mix of collected video, on-the-ground 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 making do amid war and wreckage.

Survival may mean fleeing a shelled-out city, even to another country, but whatever Ukrainians chose to do — leave or stay — their strength of purpose in remaining unified gave them an uncommon armor in withstanding the early shocks. We meet volunteers making food for hospitals and shelters, doctors offering their services, and a tattoo artist who took up the task of helping bury the dead (but not before he threw a couple of Molotov cocktails at Russian tanks from his window in the first days).

One of Afineevsky’s key subjects is Ukrainian war reporter Natalia Nagorna, who sums up the prevailing mood of the country when she says, “True courage is when you are afraid, but still act.” Later, we see Nagorna’s composure crack trying to deliver a report on camera about one more horrific, civilian-killing blast, until a nearby Ukrainian soldier who recognizes her shouts out encouraging, we’re-all-in-this-together words. (At the end, Afineevsky dedicates the film to journalists and storytellers everywhere “who are risking their lives today” to get such stories out, and there are times in “Freedom on Fire” when you grasp how perilous it was to keep cameras rolling.)

A reporter wearing protective gear and holding a microphone.
Reporter Natalia Nagorna in the documentary “Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.”
(Winter on Fire Production)
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A lot of Afineevsky’s focus is on families, and how children are coping 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 boys who would love to see some comic book-style superpowers bestowed on Ukrainians in this fight. The experience of one young mother whose husband was away fighting in a paramilitary regiment spotlights Russia’s propaganda efforts, too — interrogated as a prisoner of war, she later discovered that Russian media touted her story as one of being “saved” by them. But as a Ukrainian comedian wryly puts it in a scene from an underground stand-up show, how can an already-free people be liberated?

There are times when the speed with which “Freedom on Fire” came together shows, namely in a hurried animated history of the region’s turbulence narrated by Helen Mirren that feels crammed in, and how difficult it can be to keep track of characters, locations and war developments. But there’s also power in the unslick urgency of Afineevsky’s approach, the torn-off glimpses of upended lives like smelling salts for anyone experiencing news fatigue after nine months of conflict.

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

In Russian and Ukrainian with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes

Playing: Starts Dec. 2, Laemmle Noho 7, North Hollywood


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