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Alum’s Documentary Provides Insight into Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

people gather in city square at night holding Ukrainian flags and lights
Ukrainians march in support of free trade with the European Union in 2014, in a shot from Damian Kolodiy’s film, Freedom or Death.

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Emerson College Los Angeles (ELA) screened the documentary Freedom or Death!, directed by Ukrainian American filmmaker Damian Kolodiy ’99 on April 6, raising awareness of recent events that may have helped precipitate the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  

Following the virtual screening, Jim Lane, ELA’s senior scholar-in-residence and graduate program director of Emerson’s low-residency MFA in Writing for Film and Television, led a discussion with Kolodiy and Boston and ELA attendees. 

“You can obviously see the connection between this film and what’s happening now [in Ukraine],” said Lane, who once taught Kolodiy when he was an Emerson student. “[This is] a really good entry point for people here, who might not necessarily be in tune with what’s going on over there.”

Freedom or Death! is a first-person, chronological portrait of how a civil uprising in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 2014 became a hybrid war with Russia that has had global ramifications. Released in 2015, the film tells the story of how peaceful demonstrations in support of Ukraine signing a free trade agreement with the European Union led to a violent conflict between Ukrainian activists and the Ukrainian government headed by then-President Victor Yanukovych. 

In the documentary, Kolodiy showcases the violent insurrection from the streets, chronicling the extreme chaos engulfing Ukraine in a remarkable and intense narrative. At one point during the documentary, in the midst of the violence, Kolodiy describes the mayhem as “one of the most terrifying moments I’d ever experienced.”

Damian Kolodiy wearing a black shirt and earbuds
Damian Kolodiy ’99 speaks to Emerson students in LA and Boston via Zoom.

One of Kolodiy’s previous documentaries, The Orange Chronicles, was a video diary of the 2004 protests in Kyiv. Those protests were in response to the aftermath of the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election, amid claims of massive corruption and electoral fraud. With Freedom or Death!, Kolodiy was inspired to use the same first-person format, narrating the film and helping his audience understand the situation in Ukraine through his point of view.

“I felt like I was this bridge between the Western world and this Ukrainian world,” said Kolodiy. “Being of [Ukrainian] background and able to speak that language, and being familiar with that culture, but having grown up in the States, [I felt] it would be an interesting angle or point of entry to tell these events.” 

Media Arts Production major Hanyang Du ’22 said she wanted to watch the film because of the significance of learning about the current state of Ukraine from someone like Kolodiy, who could provide unique insight into the situation.

“It’s really interesting for me to see a film from a different culture, and it is a really important film to expose what is happening there,” said Du. 

While promoting the film after its release, Kolodiy said he was surprised that he was even welcomed to share the screening in various parts of Ukraine, especially in the east, where there is typically more Russian propaganda. 

“That was a really interesting and rewarding experience, actually; even though the film was designed for a Western audience, it found residents in Ukraine as well,” said Kolodiy.

Kolodiy described the importance of being on the ground to capture the tumult, bringing attention to the protests’ true meaning to those on the front lines. He also highlighted the lasting impact it has had on individuals who are consuming information from the media.

“I like to try to tell the story [without] having flashbacks or people recollecting what happened, but actually like asking questions in the heat of the moment and building the story through those interviews,” said Kolodiy. “It really [heightens] the audience’s feelings of being in those events.”

The film builds a bridge between the demonstrations of 2014 and what Kolodiy believes led to Ukraine’s current fight to retain its sovereignty from Russia.

“To me, that’s when the conflicts started, and it’s a conflict of civilization. There’s this democratic way of organizing society, and then there [are] these authoritarian rulers, who just rule by power and might,” said Kolodiy. 

Lane shared his gratitude for how works such as Kolodiy’s can bring Emersonians together to gain a deeper understanding of global issues.

“It’s important for Emerson students to be exposed to alumni who have an international connection in one way or another,” said Lane.

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