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SUNDANCE 2023 World Cinema Documentary Competition

Review: 20 Days in Mariupol


- Mstyslav Chernov’s film tells of the first few horrific weeks of the Russian invasion, presenting us with footage of shelling, civilian deaths and the bombing of a maternity hospital

Review: 20 Days in Mariupol

Mstyslav Chernov, along with photographer Yevgeny Maloletka and producer Vasilisa Stepanenko, arrived in Mariupol on 24 February 2022, an hour before the start of the Russian invasion, as part of an Associated Press (AP) team. They recorded everything that was happening in the city, including the humanitarian disaster brought on by the siege, the mass burials of civilians, crimes by Russian troops and the work of doctors, and they were the first to show the world the consequences of the bombing of Maternity Hospital No 3. Chernov and Maloletka sent the media files, which were later watched by the whole world, while hiding under some stairs near a flattened grocery shop – the only place in Mariupol where a signal could be found.

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20 Days in Mariupol [+see also:
interview: Mstyslav Chernov
film profile
, which has just won the Audience Award in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at Sundance (see the news), is very hard to watch and impossible to view without shedding a tear. It contains footage of children dying in hospital, which is hard to forget. The children who were brought to the hospital and were filmed all subsequently died. Editor Michelle Mizner has said that she had never cried so much while editing a video.

The documentary is very truthful and contains ambiguous footage of civilians looting the city. At that time, the film crew was in the hospital for a few days, spending the nights there. Then, when they went back to the city centre, they saw everything that was happening and that people were already looting the shops. There were even stores where people were simply allowed to go in and take whatever they needed. Chernov and his colleagues simply did not recognise the city.

The lack of information on the conditions of the blockade at that time served two purposes: the first was to sow chaos, as people did not understand what was happening and therefore panicked. The second reason was impunity, as without footage of destroyed buildings or dying children, the Russian troops could do whatever they wanted.

On 15 March, the AP team managed to leave Mariupol through the humanitarian corridor. The video footage that Chernov took out of Mariupol went on to form the basis of the documentary. However, during their escape, the problem was that by that time, Chernov and his colleagues had already lost their car, and they simply could not work or leave the city. They were lucky that a policeman who had helped them earlier came to their aid once again, and took them and his family through the Russian checkpoints, albeit in a wrecked car, riddled with shrapnel and with no windows. They succeeded because many people were leaving that day. Fortunately, there was so much chaos at the checkpoints that they were not under too much scrutiny, unlike those who passed through the following day.

Chernov is a Ukrainian videographer, photojournalist, director, military correspondent and writer, currently working for the AP. He is the president of the Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers. He covered the Revolution of Dignity, the war in Eastern Ukraine, the aftermath of the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, the Syrian Civil War, the Battle of Mosul in Iraq, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Chernov's material has been published and broadcast by many media outlets all around the world.

For their work in Mariupol, Chernov, Maloletka and Stepanenko have already received myriad international prizes, such as the Livingston Award, the Rory Peck Award, the Royal Television Society Award and the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award. They were also made “journalists of the year”, according to the Ukrainska Pravda online newspaper.

20 Days in Mariupol was produced by Ukraine’s Frontline and Associated Press. Dogwoof handles international sales.

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