Mariupol documentary director on his experience in besieged city — interview

Videographer and journalist Mstyslav Chernov has been filming wars for 9 years now

On the eve of the release of his documentary film about the fall of Mariupol, director Mstislav Chernov spoke to NV about how he filmed under shelling, miraculously survived, and escaped across the front line in a car pierced with shrapnel.

Just before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Associated Press correspondent Mstislav Chernov and his colleagues decided to head for Mariupol, a key city on the border with the occupied part of the Donetsk Oblast, to broadcast news from there. When they ended up as the only journalists with international accreditation in the city surrounded by invaders, it became clear that they had unique footage. It was then that Chernov decided, if he survived, to turn it into a film to show the world "the true face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine."

In total, Chernov spent 20 days in the besieged city and documented numerous Russian war crimes, in particular the consequences of the bombing of a maternity ward. He then managed to reach Ukrainian-controlled territory through a number of Russian checkpoints and the front line.

The premiere of Chernov’s film 20 days in Mariupol took place in January at the 2023 Sundance 2023 Film Festival in the United States, where it won the Audience Award in the festival’s World Cinema Documentary category. In May, the filmmakers received the most prestigious U.S. journalism accolade, the Pulitzer Prize. 20 days in Mariupol was also awarded the main prize in the Docudays UA International Documentary Film Festival. It will be released in Ukrainian cinemas on Aug. 31.

NV: I saw your film yesterday, and it made a very strong impression. Soon all Ukrainians will be able to see it. If a person who has not seen the film asked you what it was about, how would you answer?

Chernov: This is a film about the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, about the first 20 days, and the siege of Mariupol. About how the war has destroyed Ukrainians’ lives and how they, in spite of everything, have fought and tried to survive.

NV: This is a very heavy film. Ukrainians are going through a lot because of this war. Why do you think they should still watch it?

Chernov: You know, I saw how the international audience reacted to this film and how Mariupol residents reacted. To be honest, I was even a little afraid. My first fear was when the film got into the [program] of the Sundance festival, and I was worried that it would be too heavy for viewers. But it received the Audience Award, and I realized that people want to see it and they want to understand what happened then. And this story is not yet over for many people.

When Mariupol residents came [to the screening] — they cried. It was very hard.But at the same time, it was like therapy

When Mariupol residents came [to the screening] in the United States and Europe, and then at the Docudays festival in Kyiv — there were many of them who were in the film — they cried. It was very hard. But at the same time, it was like therapy — something that needs to be experienced again in order to understand what happened to us. In addition, it gives Ukrainians — and especially Mariupol residents — hope that no one will forget about their city.

This is the first thing. The second is that despite the fact that the film is difficult, there is a lot of hope in it. It seems to me that hope is one of the main themes and thoughts of the film. Therefore, people who have seen the film do not come out broken. They leave with hope in their hearts. Because even in the worst moments — even when children die and people are losing their lives, homes, and their city — there is always someone nearby who helps. There is always a sense of unity. And it gives hope to me as a director and, I think, to the audience too. And we all need that feeling, especially when the struggle has been going on for so long.

NV: What do you think is the most powerful scene in the movie?

Its strength lies the film takes the viewer to Mariupol and does not allow them to leave until the film ends

.Chernov: I cannot say that one particular part is the most powerful. After all, the power of documentaries is that we see more than the one or two or three minutes of news through which we [usually] perceive world events. Instead, we get a complex perception. The power of cinema and the power of 20 days in Mariupol is in the fact that from the very first minutes, you are brought to Mariupol and [remain] there, together with the journalists through whose eyes you see all the stories, along with those people who are surviving under Russian shelling. That is, its strength lies precisely in the fact that the film takes the viewer to Mariupol and does not allow them to leave until the film ends.

NV: Tell us a little about the filming. How did you get to Mariupol, and why did you decide to go there? And who was with you? As far as I know, the three of you worked together — with photographer Evgeniy Maloletka and correspondent Vasilisa Stepanenko.

Chernov: Yes, I was shooting video, Evgeniy was taking photos, and Vasilisa was our producer. The decision to remain in Mariupol, even under siege, was made even before the full-scale invasion. We decided to go there on Feb. 23, because we knew that in any case, whether Russia attacked Ukraine from all sides, or decided on a new wave of escalation in the Donbas, Mariupol would still be under attack. It is so close to the front line, and Russia then concentrated so many forces on the borders and in the occupied territories, that we understood that it would most likely be surrounded. But we did not know that he would be surrounded so quickly and that it would be tens of kilometers deep in occupied territory. This made the job difficult.

NV: Did you have a plan when you went there?

Chernov: First of all, I didn't plan to make a film. My job is news. Every day I publish news dispatches for the Associated Press, and they circulate around the world, because our international agency has a thousand subscribers. But when I realized that there were no international journalists left in the city, and we were the only ones who could film anything and show it to the world, I realized that every shot would be important. Especially when we saw how many potential war crimes were occurring every day.

I sent [from the surrounded city] 40 minutes of what was filmed, and there were 30 hours filmed

So, I stopped filming just news and started filming every minute. I understood that if we were lucky and we got out of there, then something more would need to be done. In fact, I sent [from the besieged city] 40 minutes of what was filmed, but I had filmed 30 hours. But these 30 hours may be 1% of what actually happened in Mariupol. And what happened in Mariupol is maybe 1% of what happened in all of Ukraine. Therefore, in order to convey the scale of the tragedy, a larger format like a film is needed.

NV: When you were in Mariupol, where did you live there? How did you eat, and how did you plan where would you work the next day?

Chernov: We lived in the same conditions as other people: we cooked in pots on fires and melted snow to get water. The problem was with communication and with batteries. The Ukrainian Red Cross helped us a lot. They are fantastic people! They did this until the building where they were based was bombed. Then doctors helped us. After all, the surgery was constantly working in the hospital, and the wounded were constantly arriving, so they had generators working and had power. There we charged our batteries and slept on the floor next to the patients.

Read also: Ukrainian partisans carry out sabotage attack in Mariupol, says National Resistance Center

When the hospital was surrounded, we miraculously escaped from there. The police helped us. One of them, Volodymyr, risked his family to save us and take us out of the city. He helped us charge the batteries and find [a place with a mobile connection] from where we could send [materials to our editor]. He left [Mariupol], returned to Donbas and was recently hit by a Russian missile in Pokrovsk. He went through two operations, and had a severe wound to his lungs and many shrapnel injuries. Now he has already started rehabilitation, but it [will be] a long process.

NV: Coming back to Mariupol: were you there for exactly 20 days?

When the Russian army advances, it simply destroys every neighborhood it enters, while the areas it already occupies are shelled much less frequently

Chernov: Yes. We left on March 14. It was the second day of the so-called green corridor. True, there was no official green corridor, but people began to break through the checkpoints. Then part of the city was already occupied and the front line moved into the city itself. The occupied part of the city was fired upon less because when the Russian army advances, it simply destroys every area it enters, and the areas already occupied by it are shelled much less, because the Ukrainian military tries not to shoot at civilians. Therefore, the already-occupied part of the city began evacuation. But some people were able to drive a little further. There was a chaotic evacuation through checkpoints in different directions: more to Zaporizhzhya and Berdyansk.

NV: Did you cross paths with Russian troops there? Were there any incidents with them?

We went through 15 checkpoints. But precisely because it was the first days of people leaving and there was chaos, there were no rigorous checks

Chernov: We were lucky, because our car was completely broken, peppered with shrapnel, and not all the doors opened. We were just sitting behind these [broken] doors, hiding our equipment. They [the Russians] could only look through the front windows, which were also broken, but they couldn't see the whole car. We passed through 15 checkpoints. But precisely because these were the first days of the departure of people and there was chaos, there were no strict checks. They were not yet taking all the men out of the cars checking their phones.

Later it was completely different. We know what happened to Mantas Kvedaravičius, a documentary filmmaker from Lithuania, who was also in Mariupol and was filming a documentary. So we're really lucky.

NV: How did the locals behave, because it is known that before the start of the full-scale war, more than half of Mariupol residents –52%– regarded Russia "warmly" or "very warmly." Did this somehow manifest itself during the occupation?

Chernov: I can’t name the percentages, but I didn’t have the impression that 50% of people were waiting for Russia’s arrival. There were far fewer such people. I remember going into [another] basement that families were using as a bomb shelter and living there. In the corner you could always see a few people who support Russia. They stayed away from those who supported Ukraine, of which there were always more.

Read also: Russia demolishes 465 damaged high-rises in occupied Mariupol

There were many who did not support anyone — just people who wanted to live in peace. Many such people are still around. But what happened after the full-scale invasion (I see this trend in my native Kharkiv, and in Mariupol, and in many cities in Donbas): people who didn’t care, and those who were warm towards Russia, finally understood the Russians’ true face and their methods. And they realized that they could only live in Ukraine. Now they wholeheartedly support Ukraine.

NV: In the film, you quote a doctor who said that war is like an X-ray — it reveals everything that is inside a person. Good people get better, and bad people show their worst. Perhaps you remember some of the behavior you saw, both good deeds and bad?

Even though there are a lot of heavy moments, panic, and tragedy in the movie, we always see people supporting each other

Chernov: As I said, despite all the hardships and tragedies, we always saw people supporting each other — those whom they don’t even know, just those who are nearby, like neighbors and patients. The police, firefighters, doctors, ordinary people, and volunteers. And the deeper the crisis, the more the city was hurting, the greater this support was.

There were ordinary people who completely took over organization and providing assistance to thousands of people who were hiding in large bomb shelters like the drama theater, the large Terrasport gym, and several others. These were ordinary people who helped everyone who came, got water, cleaned sewers, looked for food, and took people to the hospital. It was fantastic, and I had never seen anything like it.

But there was also chaos and looting. Usually I don’t speak about this, but I remember how looters chased me, trying to take away my camera. During a crisis, bad people show their faces. Because the police simply could not manage to detain them. There were also those who passed information to Russia. We saw this too.

NV: Tell us more about these cases. How did you know someone was passing on information?

Chernov: There were many stories, because we talked with the police and special operations forces who were looking for just such people. These cases became known after Mariupol was occupied. The soldiers who emerged from captivity also talked about them. There were only a few such agents, but Russia, most likely, had been preparing them for years. They were activated during the full-scale invasion.

NV: What do you think helped you get out of Mariupol unscathed? After all, the Russians, they say, were hunting for you. I mean, they knew you were there, and they were looking for you.

Chernov: As I said, the chaos helped us, because these were the first days [of the evacuation]. And it helped that we met the Red Cross convoy, with which we moved through the front line. Getting through the front lines was the hardest part. You can drive through the checkpoints, but what will you do on the front lines, where there is fighting? Planning helped, along with luck. But in general, it was not “what”, but “who” that helped.

NV: And what was your reaction when you found out that the Russians called the consequences of the bombing of the maternity ward you filmed a staged performance? What did you feel then?

The more absurd and cruel an act Russians commit, the more they will [spread] propaganda that denies it

Chernov: Nothing. Because we had already been through nine years of this hybrid information war. It was clear that the more people involved, and the more absurd and cruel the acts that the Russians commit, the more they will [spread] propaganda that denies it.

I remember what it was like after the Russians shot down MH17 flight in 2014. I was one of the first international journalists to get on the scene. That footage went around the world. But at the same time, Russia launched a massive disinformation campaign. So this method was already clear.

Therefore, when we saw the consequences of the bombing of the maternity ward, we realized how important these shots would be for the world to understand the true face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We were already expecting a full-blown disinformation campaign. And it is impossible and unnecessary to fight it — you just need to do your job and keep filming.

NV: You have filmed more than one war. You were in Syria and Iraq. In your opinion, is the war in Ukraine different from other wars you have seen?

Chernov: I have been filming wars for nine years now and over the years I have seen that they are all connected in one way or another. Russia is always there somewhere — be it Syria, where Russia also destroys cities with its bombs, be it Chechen fighters who joined ISIS in Iraq, or "peacekeepers" (actually Russian special forces) in Nagorno-Karabakh. And so on. Everywhere there is a Russian trace. But all the same, the war in Ukraine remains the hardest for me. My career as an international and military journalist began in 2014. And I'll tell you the truth: there was nowhere worse than in Mariupol — such chaotic bombing, such concentrated pain and danger.

NV: When you were in Mariupol (I understand that it was dangerous and often scary there), were there any peak moments which you thought were the worst in your life?

Every day you wake up in the basement and realize that you have to go out and go shoot, and this could be your last day.

Chernov: Hard to tell. It was constant. Every day you wake up in the basement and realize that you have to go out and go shoot, and this could be your last day. But you see that the doctors come out and go to work. Moreover, the doctors did not sleep at all — I do not know how they survived, but they kept working. Police officers traveled around the city helping people. Firefighters — even after everyone had been bombed, there were no cars or fire stations left, they still went and sorted through the rubble. Of course, you also go out and do what you can. But it's scary.

I remember a moment when we were surrounded. I'm not going to tell you everything, because it's in the movie — there are many interesting details that were not in the news and that have never been published. So, we were surrounded in hospital No. 2, which was already behind the front line. The Russians went to the hospital, and we understood that if they found us, then that was it. It was scary.

NV: Have there been moments when you wanted to put the camera down and intervene in the situation, perhaps to help or do something?

There is a simple rule for journalists who work in [conflict] zones: if you see that there is someone competent who can help the person, you keep filming

Chernov: We did this often. It just wasn’t visible, because we put the camera away. There is a simple rule for journalists who work in [zones of] conflict: if you see that there is someone competent who can help a person who is suffering or injured, then you continue to shoot. If there is no such person, then you drop the camera and help. There were moments when we helped doctors carry the wounded or carry food around the hospital — sorts of small things that did help a little.

NV: For your work in besieged Mariupol, you and your colleagues received the Pulitzer Prize. Tell us about how this happened.

Chernov: In fact, [this award] is not only for 20 days in Mariupol. Together with Lori Ginnant, our correspondent who lives in Paris, we produced 11 investigations about what happened in Mariupol after the occupation and after we left: how the Russians kidnapped and took away children, how houses were demolished, what happened to the drama theater — a complete reconstruction of its bombing and so on. For these 11 investigations about Mariupol (and this is a year of work), we received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

When we heard that we had received it, we were happy, because it meant that the world trusts Ukrainian journalism. This is important. Because over these nine years, the status of Ukrainian journalism has risen from the level of a local biased point of view to professional objective work. And this is a general trend in world journalism: now people who work in their country are more trusted.

Read also: Russia reinforcing Berdyansk from temporarily occupied Mariupol

NV: Has the award ceremony already happened?

Chernov: No, the ceremony will be in October. And I think it's important to travel to represent Ukrainian journalism and talk, talk, talk about the war. Because there are many people who are tired. And there are people who do not watch the news at all, but do watch movies and documentaries. 20 days in Mariupol gives us the opportunity to speak frankly about the Russian invasion of Ukraine with such people.

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Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine