„If we look at the World War 3 that is [happening] today, it’s a hybrid war. On the one hand, we have shelling missiles, civilian people dying, on the other hand, we have hybrid war of media and propaganda. Many dictators of today took from Goebbels’ playbook: take a lie that is big enough and repeat it over and over, and it becomes true. We also know another rule: truth is the enemy of the state. Putin successfully adapted this already from 2010, when he started to adopt certain laws in Russia. Propaganda is a problem. When people who had been influenced by it see my film, they are silent, because after seeing something like this it’s really difficult to create arguments”, Evgeny Afineevsky, Russian-origin filmmaker from the U.S. who visited Vytautas Magnus University at the invitation of the U.S. Embassy in Lithuania, said. The director presented his latest work, the documentary Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.
According to the filmmaker, with this film he aims to awaken those who are still ignoring the war in Ukraine, to encourage them to take action, to tell true stories about Ukrainians, educate people and awaken their conscience. Afineevsky dedicated his film to journalists and storytellers who risk their lives every day in order to show what is truly happening in Ukraine.
Fight between humanity and absolute evil
“[I did not want] to just blindly show horrifying graphic images. Then, people will just switch off TV and not pay attention. For me at present it is more important to connect mothers from Ukraine who every night pray for the safety of their children, that they will wake up every morning and stay alive, to the mothers across globe. To connect with the doctors, volunteers, journalists [of Ukraine], all of them. To show barbaric or bottomless cruelty versus humanity from our side. The Ukrainian nation has humanity, a great sense of humor, despite all the bullets and bombs that fall basically on their heads”, Afineevsky explained.
During the discussion after the film’s screening, philosopher, VMU professor Gintautas Mažeikis noted that the people interviewed in the film call the war in Ukraine not just brutal but also banal, which is similar to how the philosopher Hannah Arendt described Nazi crimes. However, according to some analysts, the behaviour of the Russian soldiers can be characterised not just as banal, but also bottomless.
“We expected some of the Russian soldiers to be banal, without education, corrupt, get goods from Ukraine, but we didn’t consider them as people who feel pleasure from killing, torturing or prosecution. We always thought that we see the bottom of evil, [but] the next day we found that it’s not the bottom, it could be even more terrible. Then Ukrainian analysts started saying that it’s a bottomless evil. Dante thought that there are only nine circles of hell, however, they are [actually] endless. We see elements of absolute evil. It means being ready to use nuclear weapons and to kill everybody”, Prof. Mažeikis said.
The filmmaker was also asked why his film included usage of not just Ukrainian but also Russian language. In his words, this was done in order to show that Ukraine is open to everyone. “That was the decision to show that what the Russian propaganda says about [Ukraine] suppressing people who speak Russian is [a lie]. It’s the narrative on the Russian TV. I was asking questions in Russian, some of the people answered in Ukrainian, some communicated in Russian out of respect to me. That’s what I witnessed through my camera lens, I stayed true to it. I’m trying to show the hospitality and openness of the Ukrainian community”, the documentary’s author explained, adding that he does agree with the Ukrainians’ attempts to limit the use of Russian language on TV because it suppresses Ukrainian culture.
Euromaidan: a manual for revolutions in the 21st century
Evgeny Afineevsky has previously visited Lithuania to present his Oscar-nominated film Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, which documented the 2013–2014 protests in Ukraine that led to a revolution: the Euromaidan. The guest underlined that today, just like during that time, all people of Ukraine find their own ways to contribute to victory.
“During Maidan, there was a big poster: a big drop of water and the caption “Each of us is a drop of water, but together we are an ocean”. (…) Rich and poor, young and old, different social classes, all religious groups were together, showing the will of the nation and fighting. That was a beautiful thing. People stood in this cold winter against bullets, against police batons, and proved their loyalty to democratic values and the European Union. Last year, when the full-scale war started, the media asked me [about Ukraine], I said: “They are a free-spirit nation, they will never give up, they will die standing and getting bullets in their face but they will never go on their knees”. That’s the truth. That’s what I saw in Maidan”, Afineevsky explained, describing this as one of the biggest lessons he had learned in Ukraine.
According to the director, the protests in Ukraine that were captured in his film Winter on Fire have inspired similar protests in other countries of the world: Hong Kong, Venezuela, Nicarague, Chile, Lebanon. “The Ukrainian nation paved the way for many countries to fight against dictators, to stand against oppression. They created the manual of revolution of the 21st century”, he said, adding that the most famous dictators, such as Napoleon, Hitler or Putin, always come to a bad end.
Russians are scared, double-faced, and poisoned by propaganda
The filmmaker, who was born in Soviet Russia but emigrated in 1991 and currently lives in the U.S., also shared his thoughts on the Russian society and the possibility of the Russians rising up to fight for democratic values and oppose the government.
“There are a few categories [of people] in Russia. Some are afraid to talk and stay in the comfort zone. Some are double-faced, like many Russian artists [who describe the West as nasty on Russian public TV] and then enjoy themselves in American Grammy awards. Then there are pople who are deeply poisoned by propaganda. I think something major needs to happen to the Russian population for them to have this revelation. It’s up to them to make change, to decide if they want to still be slaves, under the same type of government and just exchange one president for another similar one, and all Russian elite still has its money, or if they want to go on the streets like Ukrainians and make change. But it’s up to them”, Afineevsky stressed, reminding that he did not aim to defeat the Russian propaganda with his film; the most important thing is for the rest of the world to unite and help Ukraine win.
“Together, with desire to do something, we can make change, awaken people, and win this war. (…) Help Ukraine, educate friends, do film screenings, fund-raisings, rallies. There are millions of ways to help. The dangerous thing for society is to be numb and stay in the comfort zone. We need to get people out of the comfort zone, because otherwise tomorrow you may not sit in these seats, I may not do the next movies. [We have to] do something. Your heart will tell you what to do, just be open”, the guest said.
The film screening and meeting with the filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky at Vytautas Magnus University took place on 28 February. It was organised by the U.S. Embassy in Lithuania.
Featuring narration from Oscar-winning Dame Helen Mirren, the film Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom has earned numerous awards at Hamptons International Film Festival, Savannah Film Festival, Mill Valley Film Festival, and Bragacine Film Festival. It has also received the Kineo award and nomination at the Stockholm Film Festival. Afineesvky’s films have premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, Telluride International Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, Rome International Film Festival and Sundance Film Festival, and his work has been nominated for the Oscars, Emmys, and the PGA Awards.