Ukrainian photojournalist and novelist Mstyslav Chernov was in Mariupol reporting for the AP when Russian forces launched a siege of that southeastern Ukraine city in early 2022. For three weeks, he filmed in a city under attack, before he and his crew had to flee a place where it had become too dangerous to remain. The footage he shot there forms the basis of “20 Days in Mariupol,” a wrenching documentary that is also the Ukrainian entry in this year’s Oscar race for Best International Feature Film.
At the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, “20 Days” won the audience award in the World Cinema Documentary category. Since then, it has won the Critics Choice Documentary Award in the Best First Documentary Feature category, been nominated for five Cinema Eye Honors and been named to the National Board of Review’s list of the top five nonfiction films of 2023.
Had you thought about making documentary films before this, or were you focused on being a reporter?
I did. First of all, I’m a writer. I’m a fiction and documentary writer. And I like big, complex stories. War in general is complex story, and literature in this case gives an opportunity to look deeper into motivations, meanings and so on and so forth. But for eight years, I was stuck with making short stories for a news agency. The stories are almost like a Spartan way to tell the story because there is no narration, no music, no sound manipulation, just simple editing from the beginning to the end. And that’s it.
It taught me a lot how to tell a story without words. But at the same time, it’s so limiting. I had so many questions after I was in Iraq and Afghanistan and Gaza and Syria and all these conflicts and wars. So many questions about journalism, about people, about war, about the general meaning of life, and no way to address any of that in the work you do. So naturally you look for an opportunity to do something bigger, to be able to ask these questions.
Also, I find it extremely frustrating that even the most important events that are happening last for a day or two or three or a week, and then they disappear in the sea of other events. There’s just too much happening, so it takes a lot of effort to actually save something important from oblivion. As a journalist, I see that every day. I do a story, I send it. It could be very important story with incredible footage. And it’s gone. If not for this film, Mariupol as a memory and as an event would be gone from the perspective of almost everyone.
So when you were in Mariupol covering the siege for the AP, were you thinking beyond that coverage to a movie?
I think I started understanding the importance of recording everything when all the other journalists left. The editors told us that no one else was reporting. And when the siege started and the city was fully encircled, I knew that I needed to record every single shot. It still wasn’t an idea of a film, but I started thinking about, how would I tell a bigger story? And fortunately for me, AP has a partnership with “Frontline.” That’s how the idea of the film was born.
Putting the film together, you had to be very careful about any kind of manipulation of the image or sound, didn’t you?
I cannot call this manipulation, but that’s right. By the end of the siege, my mic was broken and we had problems with the sound. It was not good enough for a cinematic experience. But I wanted for the viewers to experience it as close as possible to how it was, because the whole film is about bringing the audience into this experience of claustrophobic fear and loud, chaotic explosions around you. So we tried to make the sound as close as we could to what we were hearing when we were there.
But the editors told us we couldn’t do that. We had to use whatever we recorded when we were there. There was a worry that Russia might claim that we staged things or manipulated the footage. We didn’t want to give them any opportunities for propaganda about what we did in Mariupol.
Instead of talking heads, we get perspective from your narration. How did that come about?
At first, we had in mind a classic “Frontline” structure: You conduct retrospective interviews about the events, you intercut them with the footage and assemble a story with different voices. But I felt necessary to transport the viewer inside the siege. And when you have these interviews, it stopped the narrative and took away a lot of tension and fear. So we started looking for another way to connect the stories that we see inside the city.
I resisted being the narrator as long as I could. My first idea was that maybe someone would narrate something I wrote, because I did write a lot of diaries and articles during the siege. But then again, it would take away from the urgency. So we decided to let me narrate. And I finally felt that it’s acceptable because it’s ultimately also my story. I live in Eastern Ukraine in a city which is very similar to Mariupol. It all feels very personal.
You’ve reported from lots of other conflict zones. Does it change how you do your work when you’re reporting from the country you live in?
It definitely makes you much more emotional. And it definitely helps you to understand more deeply the people around you. It means you have more tools to tell a story better and deeper, but I wouldn’t say it stands in the way of the reporting. Having to report from other wars, other countries gives you a very good perspective on reporting in your own country. You don’t see it anymore as something unique.
You mentioned earlier your frustration with the fact that you can report a story and then within a couple of days everybody’s moved on to something else. This is a little different, but the war in Ukraine has been going on for quite a while…
…and at this point the world’s attention is more focused on the Middle East. Do you feel like films like this are necessary to keep reminding people of older conflicts that still warrant attention?
I’m a bit cautious about saying that I’m on a mission to remind the world about anything. I can hope. But then again, the most important part for me is that I saw the eyes of people who were in Mariupol and who saw the film. Only then I understood that the biggest value of this work is memory. Not memory in an urgent sense, to remind the world about the atrocities that Russia is doing in Ukraine. It’s a futile effort to try to convince the world of anything, let’s be frank. And anyone who tells you that they do that are probably trying to look better or they’re just lying to themselves.
The world looks where it wants to look. But when the world wants to remember what happened in the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the film will be there. And for the Russians too, if they want to see it. That is something that I also hope for.
[Laughs] I’m a bit more pessimistic than usual today.
A version of this story first appeared in the SAG Preview/Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from that issue here.