Authors: Moritz Clauder & Dominik Sujka – YEAs from Germany
On Monday 25 September, we, five Young European Ambassadors (YEAs) in the YEAs’ Dialogue Initiative EU-Ukraine Working Group, hosted a screening of the documentary, Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom by the Oscar-nominated director Evgeny Afineevsky. The event was organised in collaboration with the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, and with Evgeny himself. We welcomed over 100 young people to the Delphi LUX cinema in Berlin for the screening, which was followed by a panel discussion with Evgeny and Anna Zaitseva, a young mother from Mariupol, who features in the documentary.
When we arrived at the cinema, we were thrilled to be met by such a large queue of people. After many weeks of organisation, the sight of so many people eager to educate themselves about russia’s* war of aggression against Ukraine further fuelled our motivation to engage young people like us in these discussions and topics. We set up a registration desk in the lobby and had a chance to connect with many of the participants and to introduce them to EU NEIGHBOURS East and the Young European Ambassadors’ initiative. After the initial reception, we proceeded to the cinema which was already nearly full.
YEA Moritz Clauder and director Evgeny Afineevsky opened the event, together with Robert Greenan, Minister Counselor for Public Affairs at the US Embassy. They thanked everyone involved, and talked about “freedom”, the leading idea of the documentary. As the lights turned off and the film began, the audience was met with scenes of brutality and destruction showing russia’s horrendous acts of genocide in Ukraine. The documentary was increasingly difficult to watch as it demonstrated a brutality that seemed so far from humanity that audience members grappled with trying to understand and process the reality of the acts committed by russia. However, what also shines through the documentary are the incredibly brave Ukrainian people. The atrocities committed by russia are directly contrasted with the strength and resilience of Ukrainians.
Many of the scenes in the documentary date from the beginning of the full-scale invasion, as the film was made in the first months of russia’s aggression in 2022. There is a tone of urgency, as if the director wanted to record the events as quickly and thoroughly as possible. The scenes often move so quickly that one can barely process the horrors within them before the documentary moves to the next site, the next witness account, the next story of loss and pain.
The film analyses ways in which disinformation and propaganda, particularly from russia, have created societies in which truth becomes an elusive concept that either does not exist, or can be manipulated. This is contrasted with a continuing belief in ethical journalistic practices as demonstrated by those on the frontlines who are risking their lives to tell the real story, to expose the truth about events in Ukraine. This is an important part of the film because it explains how russia utilises networks of disinformation to spread falsehoods and erode the idea of truth. The documentary itself is a direct act of resistance against this disinformation and demonstrates how russian propaganda does not make the russian public any less collectively responsible for the actions in Ukraine. Ultimately, there is not “a” truth but “the” truth, which is to be found merely by listening to the people affected by russia’s aggression. Each Ukrainian serves as a witness to the indiscriminate violence and atrocities committed against their loved ones and their people. This documentary empowers them to speak the truth.
The documentary features protagonists from all parts of Ukraine, of all ages and professions, who have all found common cause in their joint efforts to defend themselves. Call it patriotism, or perhaps the most basic human instinct to help one another in times of need. Ukrainians didn’t want this war, but russia forced it upon them. In an eerily poetic way, each of the protagonists finds the words to convey their emotions so poignantly. The remarks of a little boy, who tells us how he wants to supply the Ukrainian Armed Forces with dinosaurs to beat russia, are particularly memorable. Behind all that strength and resilience, there is deep trauma. Yet, Ukrainians try to laugh, look forward, and dream of a free and independent Ukraine as a part of Europe.
When the documentary finished and the cinema lit up again, one could feel the heavy atmosphere. Even though it was nearly 10pm, most of the audience stayed to listen to the panel discussion. After briefly introducing Evgeny and Anna, YEA Moritz Clauder, the moderator, opened the discussion and called for audience questions. Many people expressed their gratitude for having the opportunity to watch the documentary and shared their thoughts as well as personal stories.
With each month that the war continues, the fear increases that Western allied support might dwindle. As important elections in many countries, particularly the United States, draw closer, financial support for Ukraine has become a popular topic in presidential and parliamentary debates. There is concern that some political candidates in allied countries have other priorities for how to spend that funding, which is crucially needed by Ukraine. As Western political observers undertake their own analysis of Ukraine’s military success, many are wrongfully advocating that Ukraine should give up territory as part of a settlement with russia to end the war. This is unacceptable. Not only would it violate Ukraine’s constitution, and international laws on territorial integrity, but it would not end the war, only legitimise russia’s atrocities as acceptable and possibly inspire other territorial revisionist states.
The documentary achieves its desired effect of reigniting the unwavering and uncompromising support that we, as Western allies, naturally felt during the onset of the full-scale invasion. While none of the images of the documentary were particularly new, their arrangement in the film breaks the war fatigue we may have unknowingly adopted over time. By placing shared individual experiences of horror at its centre, the film reminds us that as this war continues, it is about more than just movements along a frontline, casualty numbers, economic stability measures, reconstruction investments, and international diplomacy. We may never understand war, but we must show our utmost solidarity with those affected by it and do everything we can to bring about the quick and decisive victory of Ukraine. We owe it to every Ukrainian.
* We choose not to capitalise the country ‘russia’ or its adjective ‘russian’ as a way of showing support for Ukraine through written language. The atrocities committed by the russian regime and its supporters call for its non-recognition and isolation from the international community; hence, the symbolic choice to use an uncapitalised ‘r’.