Eric Reguly

November 22, 2023

The Globe and Mail


Pope Francis has repeatedly called for peace in Ukraine and asked Catholics to pray for its suffering people. He wants to visit Kyiv. On Tuesday night at the Vatican, he was shown a film that drove home the gruesome and sad effects of the war on ordinary Ukrainians.

Among the guests at the screening were two Canadians, former Toronto mayor John Tory and his London investment banker brother, Michael Tory, who played a big role in the international rollout of the film Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom. Its award-winning Russian-American director, Evgeny Afineevsky, is a friend of both men.

The Vatican showing of the director’s cut of the film was remarkable in that it brought together the converging interests of the Torys, the Pope and Mr. Afineevsky. They are united in exposing the horrors of the war in Ukraine, which is close to entering its third year. “Pray for those people,” Francis urged the audience at the end of the film.

The war has ripped the country apart and killed or injured 200,000 or more Ukrainians, according to U.S. officials. It has maimed thousands of children, many of whom suffer from trauma such as PTSD. It has also crippled the economy and has seen about 15 per cent of the land mass occupied by Russia.

At the screening, held in the smaller of two auditoriums at the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall, Francis watched the film from his wheelchair at the back of the room and later met a few guests, including the Tory brothers, in a private room. “Evgeny introduced me to the Pope, and he said he was pleased to meet me,” John Tory told The Globe and Mail. “I really liked the film. What struck me about it was it was the ground-level look with real, ordinary people. It gives you a different perspective on the war.”

Mr. Afineevsky, 51, wrote and directed Freedom on Fire, which recorded the early stages of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its effect on everyone from mothers and the clergy to doctors and artists. It was through this film, which has been updated since its world debut in 2022 at the Venice International Film Festival, that the connection to Canada’s Tory family was made.

John and Michael’s sister, Jennifer Tory, the BCE Inc. director who was chair of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) until 2021, was instrumental in bringing Freedom on Fire to Human Rights Watch’s Canada Film Festival in Toronto, where the 114-minute documentary had its Canadian premiere on March 8 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

Michael Tory said that, after the screening, Mr. Afineevsky asked Ms. Tory (who did not attend the Vatican event) whether she could help him secure a “high-impact” screening in London, where Michael is the co-founder of the investment advisory firm Ondra LLP. He was able to secure the film’s showing in May at London’s Royal Society of Arts. John Tory was also at the event.

Later in 2023, TIFF held the North American premiere of the film. By then, Michael Tory and Mr. Afineevsky had become good friends. The Tory brothers visited Ukraine in the summer to see for themselves the consequences of the war, including a visit to the towns of Bucha and Irpin, near Kyiv, the scenes of Russian massacres shortly after the invasion.

Mr. Afineevsky was born in Kazan, the fifth-biggest city of Russia, during the Soviet era, to a Russian-Jewish family. In the early 1990s, he became an Israeli citizen and served in the Israeli Defence Forces. During his Israeli years, he produced or co-produced dozens of musicals and several stage plays and TV series. In 1999, he moved to Los Angeles.

His big international break came in 2015, when his documentary, Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, had its world premiere in Venice. At TIFF the same year, it won the People’s Choice Award for best documentary and was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature and for a Primetime Emmy Award in a similar category.

The film is about the deadly Euromaidan uprising in late 2013 and early 2014 – its 10th anniversary was Tuesday – that rocked the country and helped to trigger Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in February and March of 2014.

Mr. Afineevsky’s two Ukraine films have reportedly earned the ire of the Kremlin. According to a Forbes magazine article from late 2022, he has been “endlessly berated by [the Russian news outlets] Sputnik and Russia Today as ‘Al Qaeda In Hollywood’ and much else.”

Mr. Afineevsky is close to Francis and counts him as a close friend. Their relationship dates to the filming of his documentary on the Pope, Francesco, which was released in 2020 and received worldwide publicity by quoting Francis’s apparently liberal attitude toward homosexuality. In the film, Francis says “Homosexuals have a right to be part of the family. … Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.”

The quotes captured attention because Catholic Church doctrine categorizes homosexual activity as “deviant behaviour.” At the end of the film, Mr. Afineevsky thanked the filmmakers and journalists who covered the Ukraine war “for fighting for the truth.”  “The inspiration of Winter on Fire is now followed by the heartbreak of Freedom on Fire,” Michael Tory said. “Evgeny’s two films together inspire us all to support Ukraine for as long as it takes.”

Eric Reguly is the European bureau chief for The Globe and Mail and is based in Rome. Since 2007, when he moved to Europe, Eric has spent about half of his time covering economic, financial and environmental stories, ranging from the euro zone crisis and the bank bailouts to the rise and fall of Russia’s oligarchs and several UN climate summits.  Since late 2022, he has been one of The Globe and Mail reporters covering the Ukraine war. In Europe, he is also a regular guest on Canadian and American radio and TV programs, including CBC, CTV and San Francisco’s KALW, and gives speeches about business issues.  Eric joined The Globe and Mail in late 1997. He has an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in English and French Literature and a Masters in Journalism from the University of Western Ontario.