It is difficult to imagine the scale of atrocities committed by Russia in Ukraine without the benefit of video evidence. Fortunately, some documentary filmmakers are bringing those images to the world so that the brutal reality of the unprovoked assault cannot be ignored.
Mstyslav Chernov’s 20 Days in Mariupol, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, documents the targeting of civilians in just one Ukrainian city at the beginning of the war last year – the strategic port of Mariupol. He and a small team – field producer Vasilisa Stepanenko and photographer Evgeniy Maloletka — got to Mariupol just before dawn on February 24, 2022.
“We arrived one hour before the invasion started, before the bombs started to fall, and the famous speech of Vladimir Putin announcing the invasion,” Chernov tells Deadline. “And we stayed there until 15th of March documenting everything we could.”
What they documented were horrors to deeply shock the conscience. Russian missiles striking civilian targets, tanks branded with the Russian “Z” firing on apartment buildings and homes. Defenseless people sheltering wherever they could.
“I woke up from bombing today,” a little girl tells Chernov, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I don’t want to die.”
But so many children, elderly people, civilians of every age do perish in the hideous attack. Four-year-old Evangelina dies in a hospital from shelling injuries. “Film how these motherf*****s are killing civilians!” an outraged doctor exclaims.
Ilya, a 16-year-old boy, shares the same tragic fate as Evangelina. His legs are blown off by a bomb and doctors cannot save him. His distraught father kisses his son’s forehead as Ilya lies motionless on a gurney. The death toll is overwhelming.
“The morgue is full,” Chernov says in a somber voiceover, “so doctors store bodies in utility rooms.”
Kiril, only 18-months-old, will not live even to become a little boy. His grief-stricken mother, Marina, cannot comprehend the wanton destruction of innocent human life.
“When Marina Yatsko is losing her child, Kiril — and we see that in the film — she is asking, ‘Why?’” Chernov says. “I keep asking myself why. And all Ukrainians are asking themselves why. And there is no answer. That’s the most terrifying thing when the suffering has no purpose, it has no meaning.”
Chernov is a Ukrainian journalist for the Associated Press, as well as a photojournalist and novelist. Pouring himself into the work shielded him somewhat from dwelling on the reality that his own country was being annihilated.
“As journalists — journalists and filmmakers — we are privileged in some way not only because it’s our choice to try to tell these stories of our community, but also there is a sense of purpose in what we do,” he notes. “We try to make a difference or at least try to make a historical record of possible war crimes, of atrocities, of murder, of the destruction.”
The film shows the challenge Chernov faced trying to upload the footage and still photos he and his colleagues were taking, so that the world would see what Putin had wrought. Sometimes he could use a satellite phone; other times a military official would guide him to one of the very few places in Mariupol still with an internet connection – a tiny island within the citywide WiFi dead zone.
“During the siege, we’ve been able to send only a tiny fraction of what I filmed. Yes, those were the most important shots. But usually the international audience sees these images for a brief moment, for 30 seconds or a minute [as part of a news story],” he says. “So there is no way for them to know more or to go deeper. And this film is an attempt to give more context on not only journalists’ work, but most importantly on the stories of these people.”
He filmed the bombing of a hospital maternity ward, one of the most shocking sequences in the documentary. Irina, a woman on the verge of giving birth, was grievously wounded. Chernov captured the moment rescuers carried her outside the hospital on a stretcher. He later learned that Irina and her unborn child did not survive.
In another scene, an injured woman gives birth in the crumbling hospital. For what seems like minutes the child does not breathe, but the doctors don’t give up on their attempt to coax him to life. Finally, the infant yells. His eyes, curiously, open right away. What a scene of madness to witness as your first view of the world.
In just a matter of days, Mariupol lies in ruins. “The city is slowly dying,” Chernov says in voiceover, “like a human being.”
The Kremlin did not appreciate Chernov and his colleagues documenting the invasion for the world community to see.
“The Russians were hunting us down,” Chernov wrote in a dispatch for the AP. “They had a list of names, including ours, and they were closing in.”
As a result of the growing danger, authorities urged the filmmakers to leave Mariupol. After they made it out in a harrowing escape 20 days into the war, the bombardment of the city continued.
“The siege of Mariupol itself lasted 86 days,” Chernov says. “These [first] 20 days are very symbolic. Mariupol itself as a city is very symbolic — it’s very symbolic for Russia and was important strategically for Russia to take. And it’s symbolic for Ukraine because it’s a symbol of resistance. The city was holding out for 86 days without any help, and an estimate of 25,000 people died, but the number could be more.”
Mariupol remains under the control of Russian forces. But across broad sectors of the country the Ukrainian army continues the fight to regain territory.
“This is not a film about the past, it’s a film about the present,” Chernov insists. “What we see in the film is not something that happened and [it’s] over. What we see in the film is happening right now. Today, as we speak, other cities are getting destroyed.”
20 Days in Mariupol is playing in World Cinema Documentary Competition at Sundance, making it eligible for the Grand Jury Prize. The significance of the film debuting in the United States cannot be overstated, because American support for Ukraine’s cause will be pivotal in determining whether a country like Ukraine can ultimately repel an invasion by a massive and bellicose neighbor to the east.
“I’m happy that this film is premiering at Sundance… and that in this way it would reach a broader audience. And this audience will have more context on what is going on,” the director says. “I do hope it will reach international audiences. I do hope it will reach a U.S. audience and I do hope it will reach a Ukrainian and Russian audience as well. That is one of [our] missions.”
He adds, “Even if it doesn’t — let’s say it doesn’t reach all those audiences. It’s still going to be there as a record, a historical record of potential war crimes… And those people who don’t want to see this right now, there will be always the possibility for them to do it later, to understand more what has been done.”
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