Mstyslav Chernov on Capturing a War That Never Ends in “20 Days in Mariupol”

“How can it be [in] a city of 400,000 there be just one journalist?” Mstyslav Chernov asks me towards the end of a recent interview in Los Angeles, just over a year removed from when he was stationed in Mariupol as a videojournalist for the Associated Press as the Ukrainian metropolis was on the precipice of being breached by Russian forces. There was another international reporter on the ground, he notes — Mantas Kvedaravicius, a Lithiuanian filmmaker who was executed on his way out and whose partner Hanna Bilbrova completed the film “Mariupolis 2” to ensure the world would get to see the atrocities he witnessed — yet when other major news outlets pulled their reporters for safety, Chernov had an exclusive he didn’t really want when he remained to chronicle a city rapidly reduced to ruins in real time, staying in the basements of apartment buildings unintended to ever serve as bomb shelters and filming in the hospitals that were overwhelmed with the wounded and underpowered when electricity was becoming unreliable.

Although Chernov now can’t believe he was alone in collecting footage of a major city’s destruction as it was unfolding, concerned that a lack of documentation will allow the massacre to be swept under the rug even more than it already has when Russians have attempted to justify the war at least domestically by downplaying their aggression and presenting an entirely different version of the invasion to the public, the footage itself is what’s difficult to fathom yet necessary to see in “20 Days in Mariupol,” a gripping account of the first three weeks of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Chernov was in a strong position to capture the first shots fired not only geographically but historically, knowing the country was vulnerable to attack after covering Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014. As clearly painful as it for Chernov to recount now, his resolve to keep the story alive with the hope that far more will take notice of the ongoing tragedy is an extension of those who he ended up filming in Mariupol, stubbornly enduring the unthinkable when their survival meant their entire community couldn’t be erased and although some can be seen taking issue with Chernov filming them in danger, the worst of what humanity is capable of is countered by scenes of some of the best as efforts get underway to evacuate the city and doctors try against all odds to revive innocent civilians hit with shrapnel or mortar shells.

After premiering earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival where it won the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary, “20 Days in Mariupol” is making its way to theaters across the country and while Chernov was in Los Angeles, he generously spoke about turning the footage he had initially captured to send to wire services around the world into a film that could stand the test of time, overcoming the technical challenges presented by a country increasingly without basic resources to collect as much footage as he did and how much of himself he wanted to include in the final product after coming up in his career as an impartial observer.

When did you start thinking you might want to film for reasons beyond transmitting news dispatches for immediate use?

Around a week in the siege when things were very intense and it was clear that we cannot get out. We still occasionally had some connection, but it was clear that no one except us was sending any footage or any photos out of the city. At that point I knew that I need to record more than just I would be recording for news dispatches, [but] I didn’t think about making a film back then because there was no time to think about bigger picture. I just recorded everything, despite the challenge that I had very little batteries left and space on hard drives. It’s only when we broke out of the city and I had about 30 hours of footage that I was able to send from Mariupol that I started thinking about making something bigger. A day after we heard that Mariupol Drama Theater is bombed, we started investigating that and I was very frustrated. I felt really bad and I thought I didn’t do enough and I started thinking about making a film. AP has collaboration with PBS Frontline and we started speaking about making a film in partnership, and then what you see now on the screen was helped to put in shape together with the amazing Frontline editor Michelle Mizner.

The film is magnificently structured, and I’ve heard that you actually ended up conducting some interviews after leaving Mariupol, but decided to stick to what you had filmed initially. How did the film take shape?

A lot of work was put into that, although it is kind of invisible when you look at the whole film. Nevertheless, it was very important because it’s a complex story and there’s a lot of different feelings and events that are unfolding and in order to tell it properly, there had to be a consistent structure and initially I did not plan to narrate the film. We looked for different narrative devices. One of the ideas was to follow up with the survivors and we actually found most of them who you see in the film [from the original shoot]. I recorded hours and hours of interviews with them, but when we tried to put it together, we thought that probably it would be much more effective not to keep that time frame of these 20 days because it’s a siege and there’s a feeling that you cannot get out, and we didn’t, so we wanted that feeling to come through. We decided to make another choice for me to narrate the story, [and] I wouldn’t do that if I wasn’t part of the community that I’m telling the story about, but because I feel like it’s also my story as well, then I did it.

It becomes a really moving part of the film when you speak about preserving this history for your daughters’ generation. Was it tricky to negotiate how much you wanted to personalize this?

I’m not a professional narrator. I’m a cameraman, right? So It was challenging to find the right tone and the right voice because in the beginning, it was too emotional and we felt like I am actually imposing my emotions onto the audience, which is wrong. My emotions there were not so important as the emotions of people whose stories we try to tell. Then [as] we tried to change, it was kind of too distant, which is also wrong because I am not a distant observer — I still have feelings and things to say about what is going on, so eventually we found the right tone to more of a conversation [like how] we sit here — you and me — are sitting and I’m just telling you a story where I’m not judging anyone, I’m not moralizing, I’m just helping you to get through this story. That was the right way to do it.

You also include footage of eight years you’ve spent in the region covering conflicts from Crimea on. What was it like reflecting back on all of that in order to create the context for this?

There are two sequences like that and it was very important for me to put in perspective that this invasion is not something new, but that was happening already for eight years. There was a necessity to give time for the audience to reflect on what they just saw because we arrive at those moments in a state of very high tension and strong emotions, so you just need time to process and to breathe. These sequences are there for that matter too, to give some space to reflect on what we just saw, and from a structural point of view, they were crucial for the film.

Once you were out of the war zone and perhaps observed some of the coverage of the invasion, did it influence how you wanted to tell this story?

One of the main themes of the film is misinformation, and it was very challenging to speak about because how do you show misinformation, right? I didn’t want to be judgmental or to moralize, but to show that misinformation or misinterpretation is not only changing the history, but its existence is part of history and part of this story too, so we try to show how the ripples of the information go across the world from the events that we witness. That’s why the news sequences appeared in the film, and that is why it’s one of the key elements to telling this side of a story because the information war is a part of modern warfare.

That’s why I’m so glad that you made this. You mentioned having limited storage capacity on the hard drives earlier. Did you grow more intentional about the images that you captured as you were moving through this?

I wish I was more intentional because you have a very limited amount of batteries and the building of the Red Cross where we used to charge batteries was bombed and didn’t exist anymore. The hotel [where we took shelter] used to turn on the generator for an hour, but they ran out of gasoline, the generator wasn’t working anymore, so the only place where you could actually charge batteries was a surgery room, which always had power because there were constant surgeries happening all the time and while we were there, I still had the chance to charge, but I had to be economic about space on hard drives, and because of that, I missed so many important moments. I dream about those moments, and they would make film better if I had recorded them, but unfortunately I haven’t. Several times when there were explosions really nearby and I was just ducking and hiding from them. and some of the stories that have been told to us were not recorded as well, so there’s a lot of regret there.

I can’t imagine you making something stronger than what you’ve got now. And some images I imagine that did not seem important at time become really powerful, like the guinea pig scurrying around the streets. Was it interesting to see such things emerge later or did you know they were interesting in the moment?

That’s why to work with a good editor is so important — I did not remember [filming that], and I wouldn’t probably even include those moments where I don’t turn off the camera, just drop the camera down and have conversation or reflect somehow on what just happened. These moments which as a news cameraman [where] I would put aside [the camera] were just an error, but thanks to Michelle [Mizner] they were noticed and it was a discovery that was made later.

When talking to people in the midst of the the city being bombed, some seem insistent on talking to you and others are clearly upset at being filmed. Was what you included a fair representation of what you experienced as far as the attitudes towards having this story told?

Different people had different reactions and it was important to show the wide variety of reactions because this not only tells us how people react to journalists in this specific situation, but how effective an information siege as a part of modern warfare is. You don’t just cut out the city from the outside world by surrounding it, you’re also cutting off the information and the society collapses. Society can survive without food for a while, but it cannot really survive without information. You could see how desperate people were to speak to us. Even if they were angry, they still wanted to express their opinions about what they think was real and what was true and not true, so that relationship was a part of a theme that I’m trying to tell.

From what I understand, this film has not only helped give a better understanding to those watching what’s unfolding in Ukraine around the world, but to Ukrainians who have been trying to locate their loved ones who have been presumed dead or missing. What’s it like to have a film already as active as it has been in making those connections?

Those immediate effects we’re talking about, when people find their relatives because they saw them in a footage or officials were able to negotiate green corridors to safe passage for civilians while using our footage and photos, all this is immediate effect of journalism more than documentary filmmaking. But if we speak about documentary filmmaking, we’re speaking about more of a long-term effect because documentaries form our understanding of the past even more than present. When we want to understand what happened during the Second World War or the Vietnam War, we go for books and we go for documentaries. We don’t search for old news articles, right? So in future, I hope that this film will be also educational for generations to come, whether they are Ukrainians or Russians maybe, even. It will be out there.

“20 Days in Mariupol” is now playing in New York at Film Forum and opens on July 21st in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center, and San Francisco at the Roxie Theater. A full list of theaters and dates is here.

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