Mstyslav Chernov, an Associated Press journalist and photographer, spent the first 20 days of Russia’s full-scale invasion in Ukraine covering the events in the eastern port city of Mariupol. Chernov and his colleagues Yevhen Malolietka and Vasylysa Stepanenko – the only journalists left in the city – brought to light what life in Mariupol was like under Russian siege. Chernov and Malolietka transmitted reports and photographs from Mariupol, documenting countless Russian war crimes, from the bombing of the Mariupol maternity hospital to attacks on the city’s residential neighborhoods by Russian tanks. “I don’t think there is a single TV channel that didn’t broadcast that footage. Even Russian TV channels showed it – though the question of course is how they framed it,” Chernov said with a smile.
The footage became the basis of Chernov’s documentary, 20 Days in Mariupol. The film premiered during the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, America’s largest independent film festival, where it won the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary. The documentary will be released in Ukraine after it is screened at several international film festivals. It will later also be released on Amazon Prime. Yaroslav Druziuk, The Village Ukraine editor-in-chief, talked to Chernov about the moment when he was most afraid in Mariupol, his decision to put even the most brutal of images on view, and the early feedback the documentary has received.
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The Sundance award and a platform for sharing the truth about events in Mariupol
– Let’s start with your Sundance award. As far as I understand, for you this is not so much about the recognition of your work, but rather about gaining access to a bigger platform to broadcast this story, right?
– Yes, it makes the film available to a larger audience. When a film is included in the festival circuit, its potential audience grows. It’s [important] for its further distribution through different channels, on streaming services, and in cinemas. The more recognition gained at festivals, the more cinemas will want to screen it all over the world, and the bigger the audience.
Sundance was a great springboard. We were surprised that the film received the audience award – we thought it would be too heavy. But it turned out people thought it was important.
Still from 20 Days in Mariupol
– As far as I understand, you have in many ways intended the film for this audience: foreign viewers, first and foremost Americans. How was it received at Sundance?
– Everyone was crying, that’s what happened. Lots and lots of tears. Each screening – that’s 500 people each – was sold out. Lots of tears, lots of anger, sympathy. The first question during the post-screening Q&A was always: How do we help Ukrainian people? Will our senators see this? Will the UN see this? Will the Russians see this?
I immediately felt that the film was compelling people to act, and that’s the most important thing for me. People also said that they would consume news differently, that the film made them better understand how news stories are made, what the context is, who is behind the camera and what the conditions of journalists’ work are.
Another important theme the film covers is how information spreads – how it affects different societies, what responses it provokes: propaganda, societal changes, or a lack of changes…
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– What feedback did you receive post-screenings? Perhaps you received people’s personal responses afterwards?
– It’s interesting to note that the organizers made sure there were counselors at every screening, specialists that people could talk to if they felt the need to.
– And did people do that?
– No, no one did. But some people approached me after the screenings and offered to give money to people in Mariupol. Or just asked how they could help.
– I know it’s a tentative question, but how will you assess the film’s impact?
– That’s what festivals are for. If the film wins an award at a festival, it means that the organizers and the audience understand the ideas and events it covered. Having people see and understand that is important. It’s difficult to reach people in this day and age. They exist in a vacuum, in their own media and information bubbles, in their own reality. It’s difficult to enter that bubble.
Deciding what to include in the film
– How did you decide to open the film with the footage of Russian tanks in Mariupol?
– Not straight away, but early in the editing process.
– Was that the moment when you felt the most fear during your time in Mariupol?
– Yes, that was the scariest moment. But that’s not why we decided to start the film there. We just didn’t want to start with something that all films [about the Russian-Ukrainian war] start with.
– You mean Putin’s address [in which he essentially announced the beginning of the full-scale invasion]?
– [Yeah], we still included it, just not in the very beginning. The film follows the structure of a classic journalistic article; we built the film around the article I wrote when I left Mariupol [20 days in Mariupol], which starts in almost the same way as the film.
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– I still have your footage of a Russian tank firing on a residential building before my eyes.
– I can’t explain that. I’d like to ask them. But I think that’s their tactic.
– To sow fear?
– I don’t think it’s about intimidating people. I don’t know what’s inside anyone’s head. But if you think about how [the Russians] captured Aleppo, Grozny or, later on, Popasna, they used the same tactic. Razing the city to the ground so that its defenders have nowhere to hide, then entering it. The scorched earth tactic, a medieval tactic for capturing cities. There’s no other explanation I can think of.
– I wanted to ask you about how you make decisions on what to include and what not to include. Because you’ve included a lot of things in this film…
– Some people even say too many.
– The circumstances pose an unprecedented challenge to all journalists, which was impossible to prepare for. I know this from my own experience: we faced a similarly challenging decision when [The Village Ukraine co-founder and publisher] Andrii Bashtovyi brought back his photographs from Bucha, some of the first images to capture Russian war crimes there. We spent a long time discussing where to draw the line in terms of what we can share with our readers. We eventually decided that we will share even the most violent photographs, so that as many people as possible get to see them. Every time I see Russian propaganda try to spin fake information – for example that the Bucha images were staged – I become increasingly convinced that we made the right decision.
– I imagine newsrooms all over the world had to grapple with similar decisions. And I think that the war has changed many publications’ policies regarding what they can and cannot publish. At least in part. And the reason this happened is that there were too many crimes and all of them had to be [documented]. And of course it was also related to the fact that the Russian propaganda has immediately responded to that.
It is also easier for me because I work for Associated Press, and AP publishes everything, they have no issues with this.
– Yes, because it is an agency that shares images and footage with other media.
– Selection occurs at the level of individual newsrooms, which decide what they need and what they don’t need. We can publish everything. There’s an editorial warning: careful, these images may contain graphic content. […]
[AP’s guides] aren’t meant to be provocative but rather to help. When I’m overwhelmed with feelings, when there’s something I want to say, there’s always an editor who will tell me: “Calm down Mstyslav. Have you shown the other side [of what’s happening]? Have you covered this other situation?”
My task is to capture, write down, photograph, and film everything around me. How these materials will be used – whether in a news report or a trial – is not my decision to make. But the film has given me an opportunity to contextualize. Showing a wider context leaves less room for distortion. Because the so-called information war concerns the interpretation of facts rather than simply their presentation. When you offer your audience more context, there is less room for distorting interpretations.
When we were editing the film we had a major discussion about where that red line lies, crossing which would push the viewer away, would force them to leave the movie theater. But no one [at Sundance] left. So I think we were able to find that line.
I do think that we didn’t show enough, even though someone else might think we showed too much. That’s how it goes. We found a compromise: we hide nothing but we maintain respect for people even in how we portray their death – a respect for both the viewers and those who have, unfortunately, lost their lives.
20 Days in Mariupol teaser
– You might have a bit more distance now, but do you have two separate identities you can tap into, something like Mstyslav the AP cameraman and Mstyslav the witness to these events?
– No. Being a journalist and bearing witness are the same for me.
Yes, my voice can be heard in the film, but I’m trying to keep a distance. I don’t want to impose my feelings on people. It was important for me not to make the voiceover overly emotional when we were recording it.
– Even though there are emotional elements [in the film] – for example when you talk about your family – they don’t clash with what you’re trying to show.
– There are some emotional elements in the film, but they are structurally separate.
– Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like you are on a journey of sorts in the film. When you meet the first people on 24 February, you say: “They don’t want to talk, their country has been attacked, and I get them.” By the end of the film, your language shifts and you become part of this story.
– It was a journey all of us have gone through. By the time we left [Mariupol], we were all on the verge of breaking down – after seeing what happened in the hospital, after watching Russian tanks shoot, point blank, at apartment blocks. After seeing all the children who have been killed. But it was important to show that, because that is also part of the transformation. The transformation of the city and of the people who are going through this. The transformation of people who lived and suffered in the city.
If I was a foreigner, I would never have let myself do this. If I was making this film in Aleppo or Stepanakert [or Khankendi] I would never allow myself to either offer that kind of commentary or even show all of that. I would have no moral right to do that. But [in this case], this city is part of my life, this country is my home. Of course as a person I feel things, I have to experience feelings.
The de facto capital and the largest city of the breakaway Republic of Artsakh, de jure part of Azerbaijan, located within the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, – ed.
And I think capturing that is quite honest and truthful. We tried to show everything as it is. For example, the way that people respond to cameras: some people asked us to keep filming, others refused; some said that they didn’t want to live in Russia, others said that Ukrainians [were attacking Mariupol]. It was important for us to show the diversity of people’s emotional responses, including my own responses as a cameraman. It was honest and fair.
20 Days in Mariupol Sundance 2023 premiere
– You mentioned the possibility of your footage being used in courts. Obviously, documenting war crimes is its own thing which has its own set of rules. But when you capture a Russian tank firing at a residential building, it’s not just about producing footage for the agency but also about the possibility of documenting a war crime.
– Back then it was as important as it is now. I don’t know if it will be used in courts, it’s not for me to decide. But the fact that this film exists as a document… The fact that this is not a news report, but a film, means that it has a longer shelf life.
This is one of journalism’s functions. Here is an example of the obvious need for journalists: the Mariupol Drama Theater was bombed the day after we escaped the siege and left the city. There were no journalists there. How to proceed? How to understand what happened, how many people were killed, what happened to those who were injured, and why it happened in the first place…
So it is absolutely critical that journalists are present at the sites where war crimes might take place, where human rights might be abused. Journalists absolutely have to be there, and journalists who are trusted internationally. Not just people with cameras or ordinary people, but professional journalists.
– One of the most powerful things you say in the film is this: “My brain wants to forget what I saw but the camera will remember.” Is that what you’re talking about here?
– We weren’t sure about this sentence, but in the end decided to keep it. It’s very personal. One of our main tasks was to limit the presence of the narrator so as not to distract people from the tragedies unfolding before the camera, the tragedies of Mariupol’s residents. The narrator’s function is solely to connect all of those stories, to guide the reader through the 90 minutes of the film, to fill the gaps and silences between the scenes.
– I keep returning to the part where Volodymyr, the policeman who accompanied you, tells you that he wants to address the world, on camera, after the maternity hospital attack. This is a moment that captures the power of journalism and documentary film-making.
– It’s curious that this scene was first released in Ukrainian. I didn’t have an opportunity to send both versions, so I ended up only sharing the Ukrainian. I had to decide what mattered the most. When we were editing the film we realized that we had to keep both the Ukrainian and the English versions.
– What do you think about the argument that showing all of the horrors Russia is committing in Ukraine will somehow influence the global response? On the one hand, this suggests the power of media. On the other hand, this year has shown that this is quite a naive viewpoint.
– All Ukrainian photographers and documentary filmmakers probably remember what Max Levin [a Ukrainian photographer and reporter killed in the war – ed.] used to say…
– That he dreamt of taking a photograph that would stop the war.
– I don’t think a photograph like that exists. But as a journalist and a documentary-maker, I can hope to take a photograph that might save someone’s life. Or just help someone. Doing this would be enough.
After we left Mariupol, we were told that the publication of our footage and photographs made it easier for officials to agree on “green corridors” [to evacuate civilians from Mariupol]. I hope that this saved someone’s life. That someone was able to find their relatives in a hospital, save them, get them out of Mariupol. I hope it helped some people. Even if it didn’t, I hope that it was significant from a historical point of view; this film will exist from now.
The best and the worst in people
– Have you seen Mariupolis 2?
– I have. I’m very sad about what’s happened to Mantas [Kvedaravicius, the film’s director who was killed in Mariupol in April 2022 by the Russians – ed.]. It could’ve happened to us. He was tortured and shot. It’s horrible.
But it’s a good film. It’s totally different [from 20 Days in Mariupol], and it adds context which our film lacks.
– You focus on what’s happening in the city’s hottest spots, whereas Mariupolis 2 follows a community of people in one of the city’s residential neighborhoods.
– [Mariupolis 2] shows life [in Mariupol]. That’s what we lacked. And I’m glad that they were able to get that footage out of the city and show it to people.
– These two films allow us to piece together what it was like to be in Mariupol after 24 February.
– It’s astonishing that there is hardly any footage from the three months of Mariupol’s siege. I can’t believe that this is the case: a 21st-century city of 400,000 – and so little footage.
– It’s clear why though. First and foremost because those who took pictures immediately became targets of attacks.
– And there was no power. And even when people took pictures or filmed things, they would delete everything if they had to go through checkpoints. But it’s still astonishing. That’s why every image, every minute of footage filmed in Mariupol during its siege is so precious and important.
There is so much I wish I could add to the film; there were many scenes that just didn’t fit its structure. They either slowed it down too much or drew attention away from the main plot. There were so many of them.
– Darren Aronofsky said something about the fact that you’re only truly done with a film after you’ve had to cut out your favorite scene.
– Yeah, maybe. [Laughing] I can’t call any of the scenes my favorite but there were a few that I wanted to keep but couldn’t. Some of those scenes would have made the film unbearably heavy.
[Pauses] It’s an endless tragedy that started nine years ago and is still unfolding. It’s like a nightmare you can’t wake up from, a collective nightmare.
Mstyslav Chernov’s interview during Sundance 2023
– There is this cliché that war brings out both the best and the worst in people; this is true of your film as well. In addition to showing how Russia is fighting this war, you are also showing the heroes of Mariupol – doctors, police officers, soldiers, and ordinary people – and the work that they’re doing. What are some of the best things you saw in people in those 20 days?
– The best was their ability to unite and help each other. People who didn’t know one another were saving each other’s lives. While risking their own. This wouldn’t have happened under normal circumstances, but this horror has united people, as well as brought out people’s real selves. Maybe in some sense this enormous tragedy has further united Ukrainians. Maybe in the future Mariupol’s tragedy will come to symbolize our national identity, and will become the symbol of our struggle and resistance. Not just struggle against the enemy, but struggle against fear.
– The scene in which a shopkeeper hands out food to the looters is just incredible.
– I was nearly beaten up five minutes before that scene took place. [Laughing] It’s not included in the film as I wasn’t filming, but I was running away from some people who wanted to take away my camera. [Laughing]
– [Your film] foregrounds the heroism of doctors who continued working even under those circumstances.
– I don’t want to single anyone out, but everyone who worked in that hospital were absolute heroes. The nurse who was shot by a sniper near the entrance… Fortunately, we were able to reconnect with everyone after [leaving Mariupol]. Everyone from that hospital is now working in Kyiv, all the doctors are there. [Mariupol intensive care hospital resumed its work in Kyiv in September 2022 – ed.]
– The obstetrician who held a newborn in her arms and wanted to protect the baby when she heard explosions nearby…
– Yes, and fortunately they’re all here now, in Kyiv.
– What about Volodymyr?
– Volodymyr is fighting on the front now, but his family is safe. He risked his own safety to help us leave and get all of our materials out. Eventually he was able to take his family to a safe place and then returned to the front.
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– You are probably asked about Marianna in every interview…
– No one asks about Marianna any more. She’s barely present in the film.
– Was this a conscious decision?
– It’s just not a story about her. We couldn’t – and didn’t want to – omit her story from the film, because it was part of the events, but it also didn’t make sense to focus on her because the film is about something else.
– I’m asking because it’s an example of how a person who had seen everything that happened there can still be used as an instrument of [Russian] propaganda.
– I don’t know. I’m sorry for everyone who has been used that way… I’m sorry that people become fodder for the information war. Not just targets, but bullets, you know? I wouldn’t want anything that was filmed to show the world the truth to be used to peddle lies. But it’s not for me to decide. I just film things. Arguing is not my job. My job is to film and to show.
This film has definitely changed how I work. I definitely approach filming differently, I ask different questions, and see everything in a different light.
– Could you say more about this?
– News is often about covering what happened, when and where it happened. The questions of what the significance of this news is and how people feel about it are often omitted. Now I want to ask those questions. I want to know more.
COVER photo: Evgeniy Maloletka Translator: Olya Loza Editor: Sam Harvey
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