November 20, 2023
In February 2022, artillery began bombarding the Ukrainian city of Mariupol as part of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A small team of Ukrainian journalists working for the Associated Press (AP) bore witness to the horrors that ensued, recording and photographing what they could for the first 20 days of the siege. After a harrowing escape from Mariupol, one of the journalists, Mystyslav Chernov, decided to turn what his team captured into a feature-length documentary, called 20 Days in Mariupol, to provide context – as well as the human experience and emotion of war – that short news dispatches cannot capture.
Chernov, photographer Evgeniy Maloletka, and field producer Vasilisa Stepanenko were the last international journalists in Mariupol as Russian troops attacked the city. They risked their lives to capture images of the early days of the war, including the deaths of children, the burial of bodies in mass graves, and the bombing of a maternity hospital. The film, which made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival Film in January of 2023 and will be Ukraine’s submission for the Best International Feature Film at the 96th Academy Awards next year, premieres on WTTW as a Frontline documentary on Tuesday, November 21 at 9:00 pm and will be available to stream on the PBS app.
WTTW spoke with Chernov in November about some of the decisions he made on the ground as a conflict journalist in Mariupol and what choices he and the team made later while editing the film.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Before we discuss the documentary, where are you these days, and how are you doing?
I feel weird because a couple weeks ago, I was still in Ukraine working on the frontlines, trying to keep filming for my new project for a new film and also reporting daily news from the frontlines as fighting is very intensive. And now I'm in New York presenting the film to U.S. audiences. It's just a very different experience, very different environment. So it takes a lot of mental effort to switch from one to another. At the same time, it all feels equally important because I do want this film to be seen by as many people as possible. So that's part of my job.
In the documentary, you have a conversation with soldiers who are hesitant to be filmed, and you tell them, “To not document it is impossible.” Why did you and your team decide to stay when so many other members of the international press had gone?
There are a few layers to that answer. The AP at that moment had several teams in Ukraine. We were the team that was responsible for the coverage of Donbas [an eastern region of Ukraine]. We were sitting in Bakhmut, a city that, same as Mariupol, doesn't really exist now as it was before ... We thought, if the full-scale invasion starts tomorrow, where should we be? Where would be the most significant place in the region which we are responsible for? I also wanted to go to Kharkiv, which is my hometown, but Mariupol is also near the town where [documentary photographer] Evgeniy Maloletka was born. So it's basically his hometown. It seemed significant and strategically important for Russia to try to get it.
It’s just a conscious journalistic decision you make, and then you just stick to your decision for as long as you can work. I understand why many international press had left at that point. Some did not want to be trapped in the city and some thought that Kiev is going to be the main battle … We just decided to keep doing what we started. And that was, I guess, the right decision. It still surprises me that for a city of 500,000 people, it would be only three journalists reporting. But I guess that's just bad luck. Mantas Kvedaravicius, the Lithuanian documentary filmmaker was also in the city at the same time with us … and unfortunately, he tried to leave some time after we left and he was caught by Russians and executed. So that would have happened to us, too.
Like you mentioned, you were originally there working for the Associated Press. At what point did you decide to turn what you captured into a documentary?
Filming for documentary and filming for news is a very different style, actually. The decision to make it a documentary did not come immediately. I was primarily filming news dispatches. That's my main work. But as things unfolded and it became clear that we were the only ones reporting from Mariupol, we thought that every single shot that we do – photo or video – every single second we record will be crucial historically and journalistically speaking, because there is so little being filmed and photographed at that moment. And so I changed the style of filming from news reports to more in-depth filming.
Then, when the Mariupol maternity hospital bombing happened, at that moment, I realized that it's not only important to record everything, but the story itself became so big and symbolic and significant for the whole world that this story probably will need to be told later in the form of film. But again, at that moment, my primary target was surviving and just filming as much as possible. I did not think about how I would make this film. The making of the film started when we broke out of the siege and we brought out 30 hours of footage. We started speaking with the PBS Frontline, which is a partner to AP. And when I met [the film's producer and editor] Michelle Mizner, that's when we started actually developing and getting ideas of the film.
You narrate the film yourself. Why did you want to tell this story in your own voice?
Actually, that was not the first choice [laughter]. I resisted for as long as I could because I'm not a professional narrator… The text that is used for the narration in 20 Days in Mariupol was actually written for the article 20 Days in Mariupol and partially in my diaries. So that text was already something I was working on. However, I have recorded dozens of hours of interviews with survivors that we saw in the film first, and we found them later as they escaped – the families that lost their relatives, doctors that escaped after we filmed them. So we started working with that, but then we realized that for the purpose of a stronger impact, we don't want to leave those 20 days. We want to narrow the focus to just those 20 days to allow the audience to be there with us and keep that narrow perspective of being on the ground. So it was a different approach. We [ultimately] chose an approach where I would tell a story from a journalistic perspective, but not throwing focus to journalists and still telling the stories of the people who are in front of us and using this narration to connect these stories, to guide the audience through these stories.
This is very much a story about the civilians of Mariupol as much as it is about your experience as a journalist. Why did you focus more on civilians rather than, for example, soldiers on the frontlines?
I feel and I have always felt that since the very, very beginning of being a documentary photographer and conflict journalist, it is the … impact on civilians that is the most devastating part of the war and the part of war which makes it so horrifying and so unacceptable. Therefore, it's very natural for me to focus on the tragedies of the civilians.
Also, logistically speaking, you just had to make a choice whether you focus on the military or you work with the civilians and doctors … You can't be moving from one place to another place. It was very dangerous even to simply move around the city. So once the choice was made, we just followed this choice through until the very end. That being said, I think the stories of soldiers and the military is also very important because ultimately, [many] of the Ukrainian soldiers who you see on the frontline, these are also civilians who just took up arms to protect their country from the invaders. So that is still a civilian story, but just a different civilian story.
Some civilians who appear in the documentary initially react negatively to being filmed, but then others welcome your presence. One doctor in particular said he wanted you to film everything to show the world what was happening. When you were putting together the documentary, tell me about some of the discussions you and your team had surrounding what to show and what not to show, given the difficulty of the subject.
The people who said, “Don't film me,” or “I don't want to be filmed,” they're not in the film. Those people who react negatively on camera usually have something to say and they want to say it on camera. So those opinions are as valid as the opinions of people who say, “Please keep filming.” And that was the majority of the people – [the ones] who said, “Please keep filming. Please show the world what is happening in Mariupol.” … So that's what actually motivated us to keep working, even in the hardest conditions. … Showing the variety of reactions to a camera, to journalists, a variety of reactions to this conflict was journalistically, editorially an important decision because, going back to the narration, we need to make sure I'm not moralizing anyone, I'm not judging anyone. I just guide the audience through the experience of people on the ground.
As we were editing, I think one of the most difficult parts … was making sure [we were] finding the right balance. Making sure that we will not sanitize the footage, we will not show the war in its lighter version, because that is actually quite dangerous. Because if you show the war sanitized, then it becomes acceptable. And that is exactly what we don't want. War is horrifying and traumatic and devastating. And that's the experience that we wanted to bring to the audience. At the same time, we needed to be sure we are respectful towards the victims and delicate. It was important not to numb the audience because [with] too much violence, too much blood … it was always a danger that at some moment the audience will just stop being emotionally connected with what they see because it's too much, too overwhelming. So finding that right balance was an important decision to make. When the first film went to Sundance … I was really worried that it would be too hard. But then people sat through it, and people watched it, and then the film received an audience award at Sundance. That was a message that we did find the right balance.
In the documentary, you cut between the longer moments that you filmed and the news programs that show shorter clips of your footage. Those shortened news clips are a pretty big contrast to much longer, very intense footage on the ground. Why did you want to include those moments where news reports are using your footage?
As you might notice, the journalism and the impact of journalism – or lack of impact, for that matter – is part of the theme of the film, as well as misinformation and misinterpretation. Including the news footage, including the external view of the events which were unfolding in front of us and unfolding in front of the audience is helping to address that theme. It addresses the issue of how different the events on the ground look from what we see on the news, and how much internal work we need to do to really understand what people on the ground are going through, or what war is really like.
The Russian embassy in London had labeled some of your images and footage as fake and claimed people in the film were actors. After everything your team and the citizens of Mariupol have been through, what was it like for you to see that? How did you feel both as a journalist and as a Ukrainian?
How I feel about it as a Ukrainian is journalistically irrelevant, but important for me, of course, as it impacts my wellbeing. But it does not impact my work, because we do work for an international news agency and we have a wider perspective, I think, on the events that are happening. That being said, I think we should not fight propaganda in any way as journalists. It's not a journalist's job to actually fight anyone because we are not soldiers. Our job is to inform and keep informing and not to argue. Things get misinterpreted all the time. The only way we can address that is to keep reporting, and keep doing films like 20 Days in Mariupol. Because when an audience watches a two minute news clip, it's quite easy to manipulate the meaning there. But when you watch the film, when you have all the context, there is much more understanding of the event. There is much less space for the misinterpretation.
Because information becomes a weapon in modern warfare, to consider journalists as participants of these wars, not as people who inform, that is just plainly dangerous for journalists because they are becoming the targets. And I think our story is an example of that. And the story of Mantas Kvedaravicius is an example of that. The story of my friend Maks Levin, who was killed just north of Kiev, shot dead with a camera in his hands … That's what makes me angry and sad – that we are increasingly becoming targets.
The film is called 20 Days in Mariupol, but many, many days have passed since this documentary was first filmed. The film is not looking back at an event with ten or 20 years of hindsight. This is still very much an ongoing conflict. So what do you want people to take away from this documentary, particularly because it's still ongoing?
We live in a world where things get forgotten very quickly. Every day there is a new tragedy. Every day there is something to care about. The whole world gets overwhelmed by these tragedies, and we forget. As a journalist, I know that whatever I film, however important it is today, tomorrow it's gone and forgotten. So making a film for me was a case of making sure that Mariupol, and the tragedy of its residents, and the resilience of Ukrainians in the beginning of the full-scale invasion will not be forgotten.
The good thing is that when … people go and see this film in the cinema, when they walk out and speak to me, they say, “What can I do?” And that's so significant for me because, again, we live in an age where a lot of people are just indifferent. They don't care. If the work we do inspires people for any kind of action, that's a lot. Also, the footage that we shot and the photos that we shot were used by the authorities to negotiate the green corridor for people who were leaving Mariupol. So if it also saves some lives of the people who escaped the city, that's more than I can ask for.