EXCLUSIVE: Pope Francis is issuing a renewed plea for peace in Ukraine after attending an extraordinary screening at the Vatican of Evgeny Afineevsky’s documentary Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.
The screening at the New Synod Hall within the walls of the Vatican took place on the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of its neighbor, a war that has killed or wounded an estimated 180,000 Russian troops and 100,000 Ukrainian forces. Upwards of 30,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed. The pope sat next to several Ukrainian women who appear in the film and when the lights came up he led the audience of about 250 people in prayer.
Speaking primarily in Italian, the pontiff asked the Lord to heal humanity from the river of hatred that feeds war: “When God made man, he said to take the earth, to make it grow, make it beautiful. The spirit of war is the opposite: destroy, destroy… Don’t let it grow, destroy everyone. Men, women, children, the elderly, everyone.”
Afineevsky earned an Oscar nomination for 2015’s Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom – the film about the Euromaidan Revolution of 2014 that later prompted Russia’s annexation of Crimea and fomenting of armed revolt in Eastern Ukraine. On Friday night he presented a recut version of his latest documentary, updated with very recent footage from the conflict. Addressing Pope Francis moments before the screening began, Afineevsky said, “Thank you for showing your solidarity with the Ukrainian people for the nine years of this war and the one-year of the major intervention of Russia and occupation of Ukraine… For me, it’s really important and symbolic to be with you and all of you [the audience] here on the 24th of February, the day we are commemorating this tragic start of the war.”
The director told Deadline to his knowledge it’s the first time any pope has attended a film screening event on the Vatican grounds. Seated next to the pontiff were Nataliia Nagorna, a Ukrainian journalist and war correspondent who is a primary focus of the documentary, and several other characters from the film, including Anna Zaitseva, a young mother whose son Sviatoslav was just a baby when the invasion happened. The toddler, now 14 months old, attended the screening with his mom and appeared to delight the pope with his genial demeanor. At one point he played with the pope’s cane and even nibbled at it.
Afterwards, Zaitseva, Nagorna and a select group of others held a private audience with the pope. Zaitseva gave Pope Francis an update on her husband, who is seen in the film enlisting to fight in the Ukrainian army after the invasion started. She said he is being held somewhere in a Russian prisoner of war camp. Nagorna presented him with a white-tufted portion of a cotton plant — cotton having become a symbol of resistance in Ukraine.
“It was a very important event,” Nagorna told Deadline exclusively, “because we have to speak about Ukraine, about our people in captivity, about our soldiers in captivity, about our destroyed cities, towns, villages… We have to say for all the world, they have to stop all of this. They have to stop Putin, stop Russia, stop totalitarianism, stop genocide, ecocide.” She added, “It’s really important, we need the support of the pope and all civil people in this world… We have to make our people free again.”
Zaitseva said watching the film brought back vivid and wrenching memories.
“It reminded me how it feels to be on the front line, how it was to be in the shelter with a three months-old baby. And, also, I have seen my husband there on the big screen… Actually, it was very, very difficult. I was in tears and it’s very painful. It’s difficult to get up every day and to understand that your husband is not near you and you can’t even know where he is. It’s difficult to understand that your home is destroyed, your city is occupied, your friends are killed and my family is totally [dispersed].”
Zaitseva added, “The war is not like in the Hollywood movies. The war is ugly. I don’t like when people are trying to make war like in a more poetic way. In the war there is nothing poetic, there is nothing beautiful. War is ugly, war is something that shouldn’t exist nowadays in the 21st century.”
Afineevsky flew to Rome on the morning of the 24th after showing his documentary in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on Thursday night. He has forged a personal bond with Pope Francis through directing the 2020 film Francesco, about the papacy of the first pope from Latin America, who has prioritized healing the planet, acceptance and love for LGBT people, an ecumenical approach to world religions, and aiding the poor.
Regarding the screening of Freedom on Fire, Vatican News described the pope as “visibly moved by this film so raw and realistic.” In his prayer, Pope Francis said, “Today, [after] a year of this war, let’s look at Ukraine, pray for the Ukrainians and open our hearts to pain. Let us not be ashamed to suffer and cry, because war is destruction. A war always diminishes us. May God make us understand this.”