In the documentary ’20 Days in Mariupol’, the horrors of war illuminated

PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — Associated Press video reporter Mstyslav Chernov had just escaped from Mariupol after covering the first 20 days of the Russian invasion of the Ukrainian city and felt guilty about leaving. He and his colleagues, photographer Evgeniy Maloletka and producer Vasilisa Stepanenko, had been the last journalists there, sending crucial dispatches from a city under full-scale assault.

The following day, a theater with hundreds of people sheltered inside was bombed and he knew no one was there to document it. It was then that Chernov decided he wanted to do something bigger. He had filmed around 30 hours of footage during his days in Mariupol. But poor and sometimes non-existent internet connections made it extremely difficult to export anything. In total, he estimates that only about 40 minutes were successfully broadcast around the world.

“Those shots that were fired were very important. They went to AP and then to thousands of media outlets,” Chernov said. “However, I had a lot more. …I thought I should do something more. I should do something more with those 30 hours of footage to tell a bigger story and more context to show the audience the scale.

Chernov then decided he wanted to make a documentary. This film, “20 Days in Mariupol”, a joint project between The Associated Press and PBS “Frontline”, was presented Friday at the Sundance Film Festival. in Park City, Utah, where he plays competitively.

There were, he knew, many ways to tell this story. But he decided early on to limit it to those harrowing first 20 days he and his colleagues were in the field, to evoke the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped. He also chose to tell it himself and tell the story like a journalist would.

“It’s just a lens through which we see the stories of the people of Mariupol, the death, their suffering, the destruction of their homes,” he said. “At the same time, I felt I could do it. I have the right to do it because I am part of the community. I was born in eastern Ukraine and (a) photographer who has worked with me was born in the town which is right next to Maruipol, which was occupied, so that is also our story.

As an AP employee, Chernov was keenly aware of maintaining neutrality and impartiality.

“It’s good to tell the public your emotions,” he said. “It’s just important not to let those emotions dictate what you show and don’t show…Although narrated by me, I still tried to keep it fair.”

He encounters quite a few different reactions when he and his colleagues are out in the field. Some thanked them for doing their job. Some called them prostitutes. Some doctors urged them to film graphic scenes of injured and dead children to show the world what had been done.

After Chernov left Mariupol and was finally able to follow news reports from around the world, he was stunned by the effect their images seemed to have had. They followed people they had met while there, some of whom came out, some of whom did not, and asked whether or not they had affected their lives.

Some said relatives found them because of the images or that they were able to get help. Doctors and officials said it made it easier to negotiate the green corridor to safety.

“I don’t know how much of it matches our footage, how much of it matches exactly what’s going on,” Chernov said. “But I would really like to believe that we made a difference, because I guess that’s what journalism is for, to inform people so that they make certain decisions.”

Another mission for him was to provide historical evidence of potential war crimes. Chernov is well aware that war is not even ancient history yet. It is a painful reality that endures.

At Sundance, he was able to see the film, edited by Michelle Mizner of “Frontline”, with an audience twice. The film received a standing ovation at the premiere. And a later screening, he met several viewers who said they were from Mariupol and their relatives were fleeing the besieged city along with him. The theaters had counselors on standby in case anyone needed help.

“I was hoping they would have emotional responses and they did. But at the same time seeing people crying is hard,” he says. “When you put an audience for 90 minutes in this chaos , this mess and this violence, there is a risk that people will be too overwhelmed or even repelled by the amount of this violence.

“You really want to show how it really was,” he added. “That was the main challenge in making choices when putting the film together. How do you show gravity while not pushing the audience away? … We’ve had two screenings already and the reactions from the audience are very strong. The people cry, people are depressed, and they express a wide range of feelings, from anger to sadness to grief. That’s what I intended to do as a filmmaker. But at the same time , I realize that it’s probably not easy for everyone.

Now Chernov just wants to get back to work.

“I just want to go back,” he said. “After Sundance, we will come back and go to the front lines.”

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Follow AP screenwriter Lindsey Bahr: www.twitter.com/ldbahr.

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For a longer interview with Chernov about the film, watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4kf0EnlPlv8

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For more Sundance Film Festival coverage, visit: https://apnews.com/hub/sundance-film-festival.

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