Mstyslav Chernov discusses filmmaking under fire for his 20 Days in Mariupol

20 Days in Mariupol (dir. Mstyslav Chernov, 2023). Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.

World-premiered at Sundance and showcased in the F:act Award section of this year’s CPH:DOX in Copenhagen, Mstyslav Chernov’s debut documentary 20 Days in Mariupol is an unflinching account of the period the reporter and his Associated Press colleagues Evgeniy Maloletka and Vasilisa Stepanenko spent covering the siege of the Ukrainian port city.

The picture zooms in on the team’s struggles to document the war atrocities and send the footage to their editors. Chernov and his colleagues are the first to show the world the aftermath of the bombing of the Maternity Clinic no. 3, and witness scenes of unimaginable pain and despair involving doctors, parents, and their children. Eventually surrounded by the Russian army, the three journalists shelter in a hospital, unsure of how they will escape.

20 Days in Mariupol draws on the director’s daily news dispatches and personal footage of his country at war, disclosing the challenges faced during the assault and the impact of his reporting around the globe. The raw images, minimally edited, are occasionally accompanied by a sparse score, courtesy of Jordan Dykstra. Dykstra’s work does not emphasise or manipulate the events depicted on screen, but ultimately becomes an “organic” part of the soundscape, telling the story of an industrial city shelled and left to its destiny.

We caught up with Chernov ahead of the Copenhagen premiere.

20 Days in Mariupol (dir. Mstyslav Chernov, 2023). Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.

How are you?

I’m exhausted. I’ve just come back from the Bakhmut area. I’ve spent a couple of months on the frontline, and I’ll go there after the festival. Things aren’t that easy. Everyone is exhausted – civilians, soldiers, police officers, firefighters… It seems like an endless fight.


Let’s go back in time, before 2014. How was your life back then, before all of this tragedy started?

Back then, I was a social and medical documentary photographer. I worked a lot with NGOs, the Red Cross, the UN, and other smaller organisations, [since] there were a lot of social problems in Ukraine even before [2014]. That was my specialisation. And I was also writing a book. Then, the revolution began, [followed by] the annexation of Crimea. Next, Russia invaded Donbas in 2014, and the war started… And I, as many other documentary photographers, became a war correspondent overnight.

I started working for AP in 2013. My second assignment was commissioned when Russia shot down the MH17 flight. I was half an hour away from that place. […] I was one of the first international journalists reaching the crash site and that kind of kicked off my career with AP. There was like a breaking point for me when I understood many things about the war, [and] how terrible it is. I witnessed so many deaths at the same time. That was the first time I thought that journalism might change the course of the war, influence people… That was [also] my first disappointment in relation to how information really works. The next day when I saw the news – US news, Ukrainian news, Russian news, Chinese news – all of them were saying different things. That was a shock for me because they were all using my images. Eight years on from that time, the same thing happened with the [Mariupol] hospital bombing. I’ve experienced a very similar feeling. […] You see that the maternity clinic is bombed, rescue workers and medical staff transporting Irina [Kalinina], a pregnant woman who later died with her baby… At that moment, I felt I was returning back to 2014, to the very beginning of the war. I felt this [event] was going to have a similar impact. At the same time, I knew it was going to cause a wave of misinformation and misinterpretations.

Russia wants to conquer this city, because it is an example of how unoccupied Donbas cities could be beautiful and successful. That’s how Mariupol was

Where were you on 23 February, one day before the start of the invasion? And how did you end up in Mariupol?

I was in Bakhmut, one of the cities where most of the journalists were based before the war. […] On 23 February, small bits of information were coming from all sides, analysing Russian media and the statements of Russian politicians. It became quite clear that the next day would be the day of the escalation. We sat with the team in a small cafe and realised that a new stage of the war was going to start. We all agreed that Mariupol would be the place to reach because it’s tactically and symbolically important for Russia. [Russians] want a corridor to Crimea, and they want to conquer this city, as it is an example of how unoccupied Donbas cities could be beautiful and successful… That’s how Mariupol was. We didn’t know how huge the war was going to be. We didn’t know Russia would attack us from all sides. However, we knew Mariupol was going to be targeted. So, we went there. […] We reached Mariupol one hour before Putin started his speech.


When did you realise that your footage could be turned into a feature-length film?

I’m a news reporter and my job for AP is to provide daily news. I send small news bits which can be later used by news channels and AP subscribers. […]  So, when we broke out of the siege after 20 days – and we were fortunate enough to escape – I had around 30 hours of footage, of which maybe only 30 minutes were published. Owing to the lack of internet connection, we could only publish one- or two-minute clips. And the daily news format doesn’t allow us to go “wider”, to ask questions, to find meanings… So, we left Mariupol on 15 March. On the next day, Russia bombed the Drama Theatre, and killed up to 500 people. We felt terrible, so frustrated we weren’t there, and we couldn’t do anything. There was no information about how many people died, what happened to the survivors, and I felt I needed to do more. […] With PBS Frontline, we started to produce the film. I knew that there was so much more context to what people have just seen in the news.

20 Days in Mariupol (dir. Mstyslav Chernov, 2023). Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Could you elaborate more on your work with producer and editor Michelle Mizner? How did she contribute to shaping the project in its current form?

Many people took part in the film and gave their advice, but most of the work was carried out by myself and Michelle. […] She actually helped me a lot to see it from a different perspective. One of the main differences between this film and the news sequences is that the former has a lot of reactions from me and other people which are just “away from the camera” – the moments where I put the camera down, or when I keep rolling but I just engage in [casual] conversations. All those are “human moments” which never made to news. […] These human interactions are actually what’s important, they are part of these events. And adopting the perspective of a journalist was our first choice. We tried [to explore] different approaches, but we ended up sticking with the first one.


In an interview you gave to Canada’s POV Magazine at Sundance, I remember you mentioned the Associated Press guidelines, and you said they helped you carrying out your work. What were the most useful ones and how did you manage to maintain the rigour we can see throughout the film?

First of all, you probably noticed that even though I comment on the events, I never actually judge any of those. My voice-over is there only to guide the viewer through the tragedies and the destruction. That’s where the AP and Frontline guidelines come in… I don’t judge anyone; I just provide the information and give the viewer enough context to make their own decisions.

Second, we make sure that we give voice to everyone, even if those voices are not common or [are] contradictory, or confused… You can see in the film many different reactions, you can see people calling me names, or others coming to me and saying, “please, film this.” You can see people saying they hate Russia and don’t want it to take over the city, or even others thinking that Ukrainians were the ones bombing them.

Even if you think of yourself as an international journalist and try to distance yourself emotionally from the story, you’re still very attached to people. Sometimes, it really feels you can do more with your hands than with your camera

What about your sound and camera equipment?

I used a very simple set-up, and the main reason for that is that I’m a news reporter so I need to film and edit quickly. I used a Sony Alpha camera and standard Sony mics. [To edit], sometimes I used Final Cut, sometimes Adobe Premiere. AP standards don’t allow much manipulation with images and sound, so whatever you see and hear in the film is just as it was recorded.


You’ve reported from other battlefields in Iraq, Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, and documented the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. How does the media coverage of this conflict differ in comparison with others you’ve previously worked on?

The war started nine years ago, and [back then] I didn’t know anything about war and war coverage. I’ve learnt how to survive, how to film and how to tell war stories in Ukraine. […] Obviously, the language and the background [of this war] are much clearer to me, and I spent way more time in Ukraine than I’ve ever spent in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere. […] Also, emotionally this is much more difficult [to handle]. Even if you’re thinking of yourself as an international journalist and try to distance yourself emotionally from the story [in order] to look at the wider context, you’re still very attached to people. […] Sometimes, it really feels you can do more with your hands than with your camera. […] And I think this war has also changed the general approach of the media to war. Maybe it’s too early to say, but I’ve witnessed a drastic change in the coverage of this war and others when it comes to the quantity of graphic images we can show as part of our coverage. […] The reason for that is that there were so many potential war crimes, so many murders Russia has committed in Ukraine, that it was impossible for us not to show them.

Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian film critic and journalist based in Rome.