There are many tales of war and sieges, but few are as journalistically sound, cinematically bold, and emotionally draining as Mstyslav Chernov’s 20 Days in Mariupol. Shot by the esteemed Association Press (AP) videographer along with his colleagues, the film provides a unique point of view from the perspective of one cameraperson who strives to provide an objective account of events on the ground. In doing so, though, he struggles with the quotidian logistical challenges of reporting from the front lines.
20 Days in Mariupol, which won the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary at Sundance, powerfully contextualizes the images that get packaged and repackaged on news broadcasts around the world. We see the images and sounds captured with a rawness that’s at times unsettling and at others downright harrowing. But we also observe as the clips-of-clips conveniently reworked (and, inevitably, sanitized from the travails of their capture) on the nightly news. By buttressing the final “product” with the mechanisms of simply getting the stories in the first place, the film not only humanizes the journalists behind the lens, it also provides a more profound understanding of the chaos of battle, the heightened and sometimes contradictory emotions of those on the ground, and how all of this is but a small mirror into the many stories both told and those outside the frame.
The result is a breathtakingly impressive work, a film that helps define pure journalism as much as delivers a cinematically riveting experience. There are shocking images that are truly indelible, while others are presented with a subtle impact that days later continue to rattle around in one’s mind. It’s brilliant stuff, an amazing testament to the early days of the tragic war in Ukraine, and an astonishingly well-crafted insight into recent history from all those involved.
POV spoke to Chernov over Zoom from Park City, a day after his film premiered as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
MC: Mstyslav Chernov
POV: Jason Gorber
The following has been edited for clarity and concision.
POV: Let’s begin by discussing the challenge of maintaining journalistic integrity when you have a personal and emotional stake in the story. How do you thread this needle as a human and as a journalist?
MC: The Ukrainian war is very personal and specific for me for many reasons. First of all, this is how my career started in conflict journalism. I was a documentary photographer before, but then the war started, and as happened with many Ukrainian photographers and videographers, I automatically became a conflict journalist. Almost immediately in 2014, I started working with AP. I was lucky that I got into an organization that provided me with guidelines and standards for coverage. For a while, I was covering the Russian side of the conflict. I was in Donetsk, and I covered MH17 crash when the Russians shot it down, so I’ve had already an experience with complicated moral choices.
These guidelines that AP gave me helped keep my emotions away from the coverage. I was then in different wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so that gave me a wider understanding of conflict in general as a human phenomenon. And now, I’ve come back to where it all started. Mariupol is a very significant point in my personal career, in my life, and also a significant point in this war. I guess it’s also a very significant point for humanity.
With all of that in mind – the importance of this story for the history, and for Ukraine, I did my best to show all sides of it. The specificity of the coverage for AP [inspires] me to film everything I see, and just publish everything. It goes straight to the news. This footage was not shot originally for a film but as news dispatches. When we were assembling it, one crucial point was the choice of what exactly we show to immerse the viewer and to show all of the ups and downs, all of the nuances of journalistic work and of the people’s reactions.
You see people reacting not particularly well on camera. Sometimes they swear at me, and sometimes, on the contrary, they ask me to film them because they think it’s important or they want their relatives to see them. Sometimes they are very pro-Ukrainian, sometimes they think Ukrainians are the ones bombing them. By keeping all of that in the film, it gives me a chance to feel that I did a good job being neutral and distant enough in telling the stories of people. In my voiceover as well, I’ve tried to be quite distant and neutral, I’ve tried to be not judgmental. But at the same time, I really wanted the audience to know that this story is part of a community. I’m of course part of this community.
POV: Inevitably, where you point the camera is a form of editorializing. It’s a choice. Your raw footage, seen here, goes to AP, and the news broadcast pulls in little pieces, and then further snips and re-contextualizes it within a broadcast. A year later, in the editing room, when you were reliving these experiences, did you ever think that you might have shot events differently as a filmmaker?
MC: I think the most striking thing during the editing process of the film was my own reaction to what happened. When I’m shooting news, or when I publish news, I never get to see the final use, or those clips that don’t make it. I’m sometimes not even importing footage I’ve shot, even though that did not happen to Mariupol because I tried to keep everything.
Rewatching this [footage], that’s where the editor Michelle Mizner’s job came in. She pointed out moments of reaction and that was a discovery for me, such as how I reacted to the deaths of children, or how I reacted when soldiers told me don’t film and suddenly I said “This is a historical war, I have to do it.” I didn’t remember those conversations, or how devastated I felt. I watched it and I felt bad for these reactions, but I understood the psychological condition I was in at that moment [by] rewatching it. I stopped being a journalist for a second and just went into the argument.
POV: You have a professional and human obligation to tell their story, but you also have this sense that you’re abandoning these people because you have the privilege to escape. Looking back upon that, can you talk about how that made you feel while making the film? Will this experience change how you shoot stories in the future?
MC: As soon as I started editing this film, I realized I could never come back to the normal style of shooting the news. I have been editing this film at the same time that I kept shooting daily news. I went to Bucha, and then I went to Kharkiv, my home town. I’ve seen the siege of my home town, which at some point was becoming really like Mariupol. I’ve shot it in a very different way. I’ve stopped turning off the camera completely. Now I try to provide much more context. I don’t know if that’s going to work out for a next film, but I guess I’m grateful that I see this way now because the war goes on. It’s almost a year. Well, almost nine years, actually.
POV: Almost 900 years if you really want to get complicated.
MC: I fear I might get into that. Yeah, almost 900 years, it’s true Now I have to reshape my [approach to] news and when I publish news footage, I have to limit myself to shots that are not more than four seconds. I don’t need any reactions from the journalist. Answers from people and reactions of people have to be quite short, and so on. In the news, you are looking for different reactions. You look for information much less than feelings.
I had a conversation with one of the Sundance jurors after the screening yesterday, and they gave me an insight which I never thought about. They said that apart from everything, now we know the scale of suffering and destruction of Mariupol. We never saw that, or we never understood it, from clips of 30 seconds or one minute from the news. Now with this film, for them, it just all came together, but at the same time, they felt they would never look at any news footage in the same way as before.
That effect was really unexpected. Some of the people who watch the film now will look at the news in a different way. They’ll remember there is a person behind the camera, that there are feelings there, and that this person was in danger, was suffering, was a part of the community, or was a foreigner. How does this information shape the world, or shape the media’s case? Here’s the event, you see it take place, and then you see the ripples going from it. It was a challenge to find a proper device for it.
POV: There was a film that played Sundance several years ago by Kirsten Johnson called Cameraperson. Have you seen it, and did it overtly shape the telling of this one?
MC: Discussion of that film came up while editing. We used it as a point of reference, but I watched it only after I’d edited the film because I didn’t want to get too much influence from it. There were several films I had in mind when we were doing this, and yes, one of them was Cameraperson. What is good about it is how personal it is. The second film which came up a lot, sometimes it came up with the idea of not doing the same thing, was [Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts’] For Sama, another big and very good Frontline project, which I really like. Another film that influenced me as a filmmaker, even though I watched it a long time ago, was Sans Soleil, the1984 experimental documentary film by Chris Marker. It inspired the way the story is told – I always tried to keep it in mind not to get too newsy, just to break out a little bit of standard concepts for telling the story. Those are three influences, at least in terms of documentaries. I am influenced by dramatic films as well, by different directors like Iñárritu, or Paul Greengrass.
POV: If you look at Children of Men, and how it is shot, and you look at your footage, I absolutely see it.
MC: That is fodder for a very long conversation! I can go on and on and on about this. Whenever I speak to students, and I give advice as to how they can become good news journalists, I say start with movies. The first they have to watch is Children of Men. I myself got really inspired by it. However, there is a point of frustration for me, because it’s so beautifully shot. I respect the directing and Lubezki’s DOP work so much that I would really like to shoot more like that. However, we’re all aware that when shooting a documentary, it can’t be that way. He’s using really wide angles, which, during a documentary film, especially in conflict, is almost impossible. Also, because of the variety of lenses, you either have it in zoom, or you have a really wide lens. In a conflict, you don’t have time to switch [lens]
POV: Let’s talk specifically about your kit. What lenses are you shooting with, what lighting rigs are you shooting with, and what devices are you using to upload the footage? What are you’re doing from the field?
MC: I have a very simple kit that is the consequence of being a news shooter primarily. We had a rough cut after six months. I’m used to shooting, editing and submitting the footage in one hour, two hours. If I have overnight to edit, that is such a luxury. When there is no wireless connection, I have a little bit more time for more careful edits. In Mariupol, that wouldn’t work because I needed to have very short edits to send anyway, so there is no careful editing in the beginning.
I shoot with a Sony Alpha 7, and I use a very simple Sony lens. But that lens is the only lens that gives an opportunity during action to shooting a variety of shots to build the scene. With other lenses, you really have to go wide and close and you just don’t have time to make these few extra steps to continue to make continuous editing. Take an example: a person in a car arrives, and then it’s a wide shot. The person gets out of a car and it has to be a closeup. I just don’t have to run to the car to get this close-up of a person getting out of a car. So I really need to have a long zoom. In the filmmaking world, it would be the analogue of a wide lens which goes very close, which is actually what the filmmakers I’m inspired by are using for fiction films.
I have a simple Sony mic, and that is another challenge. I never expected this footage to be in the cinema, so that is a challenge in the sound room – how do we turn the mono mic, which is on top of the camera, into a 5.1 experience? I have to give credit to Frontline and Outpost, which worked on the post-production. We kept original the sound intact. There’s no edited or recreated sounds, and this was our biggest challenge. I know some filmmakers use added explosions to improve the sound, but we avoided that. I edit with Final Cut because it’s just quicker. We have a couple of apps for uploading, specific for AP, but yes, when I shoot, I have to edit the story and send it, so when editors receive it, there is already a story there.
POV: What is the process for uploading clips during conflict?
MC: In extreme situations, which are more often than not, unfortunately, I have two cards in the camera. Sometimes I take one card out because I shoot 50p 4K, and these are very heavy files. Since I don’t turn off the camera, the files are even bigger. I would take one card out, put in a card reader, and start uploading to the Mac while I keep shooting at the same time, just leaving the computer aside. When it’s uploaded, I take the card, plug it back in to the camera, and quickly edit. So I’ve uploaded all of the files and am not importing specific files. This is only for the assignment because I don’t want to lose any footage because I don’t know what’s important. I would then try to quickly pick important clips export them into compressed files on WeTransfer or upload on our DropDat app. Then my colleagues in London, Kiev or, New York receive it. Meanwhile I can keep shooting while it’s uploading.
POV: Right. But, literally, when you’re underneath that stair near the police station, you’re looking for the signal. You literally have a laptop open, and you’re trying to upload?
MC: Yes. So we arrived, we jump out of the car. I grab the camera, and grab the computer, and sit under the stairs. I open the computer, import at the same time I try to keep my camera on because maybe there will be an explosion here. That’s why sometimes you can hear my conversation with the editor. As soon as I’ve finished speaking with my editor, the import is over, I keep the camera on, but in one hand; I will edit with the second hand. If there’s the problem because if the connection is very slow, I would give one clip to the photographer, another clip to the producer, and a third clip I would drop on my phone and we’d start uploading simultaneously to an email, so an editor would assemble this in the editing room.
But these are very small clips. We ended up publishing about 40 minutes total after Mariupol. We came out of the siege with more than 30 hours. That was another reason why I wanted to do this film because there’s so much more than was shown.
POV: We all have the stress and the anxiety of watching something upload and waiting for something to render at home. I have a deadline, and I’m sitting in the comfort of my office, and I’m watching my computer and desperate for it to finish an upload. There are moments in your film where I’m worried that you’re going to get shot in the head by a tank, but that you’re going to die while watching a file upload bar.
MC: [Laughs] I have to tell you, that upload bar stops so many times and you have to start all over again! Now that you say it, I really regret that I didn’t film the bar dropping to zero! We’d transfer sometimes, we’d get to 99%, and then it just drops to zero. It will say, “Sorry, try again.”
POV: How does it work in terms of the footage – do you own the footage and AP basically licenses it?
MC: I’m an employee of Associated Press, so the film I shoot automatically goes to archive for the clients. You see in the film see how the clients use it immediately and widely. One of the unique about AP is that it goes broadly to thousands of units. For films, there is a partnership between AP and Frontline. All that happens in the editing room or post-processing, that is already at Frontline. So I flew to Boston to finish the editing of this film.
POV: I could go on about Frontline, and I think it is the most important TV show in the history of American broadcast journalism. The fact that your film is part of the banner is a big deal for me.
MC: …But this is an unusual project for Frontline, in some ways.
POV: AP by its very mission must present itself as objectively as possible. The safety of fellow journalists is assisted in that you go in without any form of editorializing. By having AP’s name on a film, and there is potential for people to think that AP is now not just in the business of news collection, they’re now in the storytelling in a broad sense. Were any of these discussions had regarding these challenges?
MC: It’s out of my competence to do so, but it’s worth exploring this question and asking AP. AP provides an amazing standard. And I have to say, that has been one of the biggest challenges for me as a filmmaker, because I stepped from one world to a completely different world of filmmaking. I stepped from having rigid news standards we tried to bring into the filmmaking. So many things that I would love to do in this film haven’t been done just because of adherence to these standards, with a necessity to keep up with the very strict editorial standards to make sure that, even if it’s a film, it corresponds to everything AP stands for. I have to tell the truth, that has been a challenge and I think we did a very good job just keeping that up.
20 Days in Mariupol premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Update: The film opens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on July 21.