Mstyslav Chernov • Director of 20 Days in Mariupol
“Mariupol has turned into a ghost city”
- The Ukrainian journalist, writer and director gives us the low-down on his doc homing in on how the titular Ukrainian city experienced the first few weeks of the Russian invasion
The documentary feature 20 Days in Mariupol [+see also:
interview: Mstyslav Chernov
film profile] by Ukrainian journalist, writer and director Mstyslav Chernov is taking part in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at Sundance. The film tells of how Mariupol experienced the first few weeks of the Russian invasion – enduring shelling, civilian casualties and deaths, and the bombing of a maternity hospital, among other atrocities.
Cineuropa: You're an Associated Press journalist. How did you come to be in Mariupol at the beginning of the war? Did you intend to make this film from the very beginning?
Mstyslav Chernov: The Associated Press team and I started working about a month before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. We were telling a story about how Ukrainians were preparing for a possible invasion. On 23 February 2022, we were in Bakhmut, and from the news, phone calls and conversations with our colleagues, it was already pretty clear that the invasion was going to begin the next day. We didn’t understand the scale of it, and we did not yet understand where exactly it would take place – whether it would only be Donbas or all of Ukraine. But we understood one thing: that Mariupol was a strategic goal for Russia, which had wanted to capture the city since 2014 and break through the corridor to Crimea.
We decided to go to Mariupol. We left in the evening, and at around 3 am, an hour before the invasion began, we arrived and stayed there. We stayed even once all of the foreign journalists had left. It was already clear that the city was surrounded. We thought about whether to go or to stay, and decided to stay put because it was important to us to keep telling this story for as long as possible. We just wanted to do everything in our power to continue telling the stories of the people of Mariupol.
This was not the idea of the film at first. I usually shoot news stories for the Associated Press, and every day, I send reports of two to three minutes. When we broke out of the encirclement after 20 days and took away all of the material we had amassed, we had about 30 hours of video. We felt guilty that we had to leave, but we could no longer work there. We had no car, no way to charge our cameras, no space on our hard drives. The next day, the Russians bombed the Mariupol Drama Theatre.
But I wanted to do something more. I talked to the editors and told them that I wanted to make either a movie or just a big story where we could show the scale of the tragedy. When you watch the news, for 30 seconds or maybe one minute, this sense of scale is not visible. People do not understand the intensity of the fighting; they do not understand the pain or the tragedy that happened in Mariupol. I think I managed to convey that in the film.
You used a reporter's approach to filming. Don't you think this made the movie too violent? Was it necessary to show the bodies, for example?
I can understand that. We spent a long time searching for the right balance. It was extremely important not to alienate the people watching the film. At the same time, this is not just a movie; the most important mission of this film is not only to show the scale of the tragedy, to show the stories of these people, but also to document potential war crimes. I don't think you can, and nor should you, restrain yourself in that respect. It is necessary to show everything. We tried to strike some kind of balance between these tasks that we set for ourselves.
Did you understand the points of view of those people who asked you not to film?
Those people who asked us not to film are not in the feature. It was very important for me to show different reactions to reporters. You can see someone calling me a prostitute. Someone else comes up and says: “Please shoot; the whole world needs to see this.” Then someone comes up and says: “Film me, please, because my relatives don't know what's happened to me.” Doctors asked us to film so that the world could see how children were dying. It was important to lay bare all of these reactions, and I think we succeeded. First, it shows that people are different, with varying points of view, but it also shows the conditions under which military journalists have to work.
What has become of Mariupol now? Do you have any information?
Our team continues to maintain contact with the people who left Mariupol at that time, with our heroes. We also conducted several large-scale investigations into what happened after we left the Mariupol Drama Theatre. We reconstructed the day when Russia bombed it. A month ago, we published a story about what Mariupol is like now. The Russians say that they are reconstructing the houses, but according to the satellite images that we found, it is clear that more than 200 buildings were simply demolished, and maybe five to ten were rebuilt. The scale of destruction is simply beyond the understanding of a normal person. Mariupol has turned into a ghost city. It is very painful to look at, for me and for those people who left and who understand that they will never be able to return.
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