Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, Pope Francis, Documentary Filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky Earn Cinema For Peace Award

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Pope Francis and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky are sharing the Cinema for Peace Award, an honor recognizing their “contributions to the freedom of Ukraine and humanitarian efforts to protect civilians and children.”

The award presented by the Cinema for Peace Foundation is dedicated to children who have lost their lives in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24, 2022. Thousands of people, including children, have been killed in Russian bombing and artillery attacks on civilians.

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Cinema for Peace has previously honored Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, Jane Goodall, and Hollywood icons Sean Penn for his work in Haiti, Angelina Jolie for opposing genocide, and George Clooney “for creating critical consciousness” with his 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck. 

“But this is the first time that two global leaders and one filmmaker were honored with a joint award,” a release noted, “and that the awards are dedicated to someone — the children who lost their lives in the war in Ukraine. The three awards have an engraving of pictures of three innocent children who were killed on March 8, 2022, by a missile — Obodzinsky Volodymir (14 years old), Deyneko Nicol (1 year old), and Deyneko Denis (1 year old).” 

The pope, who has consistently called for an end to the violence in Ukraine, received his award on Tuesday at the Vatican. Later in the evening, Afineevsky and President Zelenskyy – represented by Andrii Yurash, Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See — received their awards at a ceremony at the European University of Rome. Following that ceremony, Afineesvky’s documentary Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom screened for an audience of over 300.

Afineevsky began shooting Freedom on Fire immediately after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, documenting the brutal destruction of Ukrainian cities, indiscriminate targeting of non-combatants, and heroic response of Ukraine’s people to the assault on their country.

“For me, it is important today to be able to spread the word about Ukraine, being able to see the potential ability to stop the war,” Afineesvky told Deadline exclusively, “impacting minds and hearts of the people around the globe with my movie.”

Jaka Bizilj, founder of Cinema for Peace, hailed Afineevsky’s documentary in a statement.

“This movie depicts the horrible realities of this unprovoked war instigated by Vladimir Putin,” Bizilj said. “The film is an exploration of the courage of the Ukrainian people led by the courageous President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who are all together fiercely determined to stand their ground until the last drop of blood. Demonstrating an astounding ability to unite as a people and defend the sovereignty of their country, Ukrainians continually show compassion and resilience even when surrounded by death, destruction, and unfathomable war crimes. Evgeny, as a filmmaker, has documented what unites all three honorees: the quest for freedom and peace for the people of Ukraine.”

In his citation for the award to the pontiff, Bizilj said, “There has not been a single day, since the full-scale war started last year, in which Pope Francis has not helped victims of the invasion of Ukraine. From going to [the] Russian Embassy by himself on the first day of the full-scale invasion to ask the Ambassador of Russia to help reach Putin and stop this bloodshed, to asking the Russian government to open humanitarian corridors for civilians to be evacuated from the war zones, and sending pediatric ambulances to Ukraine. Acting as a true diplomat of God, His Holiness was, in silence, behind the wild curtain of the war, knocking on the doors of all diplomatic possibilities and helping organize humanitarian corridors from many different places including the city of Mariupol and for the people who had been trapped under the bombs in the catacombs of the Azovsteal plant.”

Bizilj praised President Zelenskyy as a man “who stands side by side with the ordinary people of his country and makes a difference in our world by leading Ukraine to be a shield for the European Union and the Western world against the imperialistic aggressor. When other leaders fled their capitals in their private planes — like we saw again last Friday [a reference to President Putin reportedly fleeing Moscow during a short-lived military revolt] — President Zelenskyy stayed with his people in the darkest hours of the attack on February 24, 2022.”

In his citation for Afineevsky, Bizilj highlighted the Academy Award nominee’s body of work, praising a filmmaker “who through his passion for telling stories that matter, his love for humanity, and his work for justice, [has] been able to bring a spotlight on the major key issues of today’s world and been able to give voice to voiceless. From Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom to Cries from Syria (winner of the Cinema for Peace the Most Valuable Movie of the Year 2018), to Francesco and back again to Ukraine with Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s fight for Freedom.

Freedom on Fire premiered at the Venice Film Festival last September, going on to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival, Dublin Film Festival, Ji.hlava in the Czech Republic, Tokyo Film Festival, SCAD Savannah Film Festival, and the Hamptons International Film Festival, among others. Afineevsky has also screened his film in Kyiv and at the Vatican, with Pope Francis in attendance, on the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion.

“Recognition by Cinema for Peace for not just my movie, but everything that relates to it — to the call for action, to the advocacy around my movie, to the impact that my movie has been able to achieve, changing hearts and minds of politicians… I think that really means a lot,” Afineevsky said. “Their recognition of impactful elements around my artistic achievements with my movies means a lot to me.”

The Cinema for Peace initiative was launched in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks. It “has been aiming to influence through films the perception and resolution of global social, political, and humanitarian challenges of our time – and especially to oppose war and terror,” according to a mission statement. 

“In 2008, the initiative helped to found the Cinema for Peace Foundation, an international non-profit organization with the goal to foster change through film. We promote films and members of the film community who try to make a difference.”

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