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“20 Days in Mariupol”: Meet the Ukrainian Filmmaker Who Risked His Life Documenting Russian Siege

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Image Credit: "20 Days in Mariupol" / AP / Frontline PBS

Ukrainian Associated Press journalist Mstyslav Chernov joins us for an in-depth interview about how he and others risked their lives to document the Russian invasion. He is the director of the new documentary, “20 Days in Mariupol,” which has just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It tells the story of how Chernov and his colleagues documented the first three weeks of Russia’s siege of the strategic eastern port city of Mariupol, even after many international journalists had fled. “The whole city spiraled down into complete chaos. People were in shock, in panic. They didn’t know what to do,” says Chernov, whose team was helped by locals in evading Russian soldiers and later escaping the city with their footage. The film is a co-production by the Associated Press and PBS Frontline.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Ukraine has declared a nationwide air raid alert, as Russia has launched dozens of missile and drone attacks across the country. At least one person has died in the capital Kyiv today. The Russian strikes come one day after the United States and Germany announced they would both send tanks to Ukraine, in a major reversal of policy. With the war now in its 12th month, we look at the U.S. plans to send 31 Abrams tanks, and Germany will send 14 Leopard 2 tanks. Germany has also given approval to other European nations to send German-made tanks to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Russia is intensifying its internal crackdown on domestic critics. On Wednesday, a Russian court ordered the closing of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia’s oldest human rights organization. And just before our broadcast, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office designated the independent Russian news outlet Meduza as a, quote, “illegal, undesirable organization.” In a statement, Russian authorities said the news outlet poses a, quote, “threat to the foundations of the Russian Federation’s constitutional order and national security.” We had already planned to speak with Alexey Kovalev, an investigative editor with Meduza, on today’s show, but he had to cancel minutes before we went to air due to this breaking news of Putin making his organization illegal.

We turn now to 20 Days in Mariupol, a new documentary about the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that’s just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Reporters from the Associated Press risked their lives to stay in Mariupol and document Russia’s attack, even after international journalists left. They were Ukrainian journalists. This is an excerpt from 20 Days in Mariupol, which was produced jointly by the Associated Press and PBS Frontline.

UKRAINIAN SOLDIER: [translated] Signal 112, over. Signal 112, over. Signal, by Hospital No. 2, there are tanks with the letter “Z.”

RADIO: [translated] Did you see it?

UKRAINIAN SOLDIER: [translated] I saw it myself, with my own eyes. I have a visual on it myself, by Hospital No. 2, opposite the church, where the buses are parked. Tanks have entered, with the letter “Z.” Film it.

MSTYSLAV CHERNOV: This is the first time I saw Z, the Russian sign of war. The hospital is surrounded. Dozens of doctors, hundreds of patients and us.

UKRAINIAN SOLDIER: [translated] Yes, I am with the journalists. Yes, I’m with the journalists.

MSTYSLAV CHERNOV: I have no illusions about what will happen to us if we are caught.

UKRAINIAN SOLDIER: [translated] They’re turning the cannons. Quickly. Quickly.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt from 20 Days in Mariupol. It’s just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. We’re joined now by the film’s director and cinematographer, Mstyslav Chernov. He’s an award-winning Associated Press journalist from Ukraine, also the president of the Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers. In addition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Chernov has covered the wars in Iraq, in Syria, in Nagorno-Karabakh and Afghanistan. He’s also author of the novel The Dreamtime, which draws heavily on his experience as a war correspondent.

It must be a strange experience for you, Mstyslav, sitting there in Salt Lake City today as you hear that Ukraine has declared a nationwide air raid alert, as Russia has launched dozens of missile and drone attacks across the country, and you presenting this film, at the very beginning of the war, almost a year ago, you and your Ukrainian colleagues, reporters, deciding to stay in Mariupol, when other international journalists left, to document the destruction of that city. If you can put what’s happening today in Ukraine together with your film?

MSTYSLAV CHERNOV: Hi. Yes, of course. And actually, that is what I usually say to the audience. There has been several screenings, very, very strong responses from the audiences. Very emotional, people get. People cry. People get angry. People ask what they can do. But, really, what I first say to the audiences is that the film is called 20 Days in Mariupol and describes first 20 days of the full-scale Russia’s invasion in Ukraine — although it has been almost nine years. But those 20 days is just a number. There is a day 21, 22 and 30 and 90, and right now we are almost a year in. And here is, you know, this morning, these raids, these attacks, these rocket launches on Ukraine, actually proves the point I am saying, that whatever they see, whatever the audience sees in the film, what destruction and suffering and pain of Ukrainians, it’s not over. It’s not something that’s just in the past. It’s something that is happening right now. And here we go. This morning, I’m calling my father in Kyiv and asking if he’s OK, if he’s alive. And all my friends are writing to me that they are in shelters, you know, hiding in the Metro stations as they just try to survive.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Mstyslav, as you may have heard, we announced earlier we were supposed to be joined by one of the editors of the independent Russian news site Meduza. He had to cancel because Russia has just designated the media outlet as an “illegal, undesirable organization.” Could you speak also, before we turn more at length to your documentary, about what you know of the crackdown within Russia on any kind of dissent or opposition to this war?

MSTYSLAV CHERNOV: Well, it has been going on for years, and since the Russian invasion, the full-scale Russian invasion, started, has been going on more and more. And the purpose of that is, obviously, to deprive people who are against this war, to deprive Russians who are against this war, of arguments, because having a second opinion, having an alternative opinion, having alternative media who shed light on crimes of Russia in Ukraine, giving people tools to argue with their government, and, therefore, I guess that is a tactic to deprive people of those arguments. But again, there are a lot of Russian journalists who are doing their work well.

I have to say that currently most of the international journalists working in Ukraine on the frontlines and, of course, Ukrainian journalists, who lost their homes, who put themselves in real life-threatening situations to keep covering the loss of civilian lives and the fighting on the frontlines, their problems are kind of more urgent, I would say.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Mstyslav, take us back to the moment when you and your colleagues arrived in Mariupol. You arrived, in fact, just one day before the assault on the city began. So, explain why you went and how you knew that Mariupol would be one of the first places that would be hit.

MSTYSLAV CHERNOV: Right. Actually, it was like one hour before the — before the bombs started to fall.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Oh, yes, forgive me, that’s right, one hour.

MSTYSLAV CHERNOV: Yeah. Yeah, we’ve been — so, as I mentioned before, this invasion started nine years ago. So, throughout these nine years, we dedicated a lot of time reporting on the frontlines and trying to understand the dynamics of this war, of this invasion. And Mariupol was one of the — was always one of the key targets for Russia, as it is on the way, as on a land bridge, basically, to Crimea, to the occupied territory — another occupied Ukrainian territory by Russia. And Russia tried to take Mariupol in 2014. They failed.

And on the 23rd, it became more and more clear that the invasion is imminent. There were so many small pieces of the puzzle, which we just placed together, messages from our colleagues, journalists, who were just analyzing the Russian state media, who were preparing the ground for this assault. We concluded that the war is going to start next day, on the 24th. And it was the evening of the 23rd, and we just decided to go, not to wait and to go, because Mariupol is very close to Russian border, and we knew that it swiftly will get surrounded, so we needed to get there before that. So we did. And it happened, got surrounded just in a few days.

AMY GOODMAN: A lot of the film, you’re doing work in the hospital. And there’s this comparison between covering the dead, the dying, the wounded in the hospital and the sort of comparison to what’s happening to Mariupol. But I wanted to turn to another clip from your film, 20 Days in Mariupol, which is produced jointly by the Associated Press and PBS Frontline. This shows the aftermath of the March 9th bombing of a maternity hospital there.

MOTHER: [translated] Where should we go?

UKRAINIAN SOLDIER 1: [translated] Just go there.

MOTHER: [translated] Where?

UKRAINIAN SOLDIER 1: [translated] Here.

BOY: [translated] Oh my god. The cars are destroyed.

UKRAINIAN SOLDIER 1: [translated] Calm down. Shh, calm down. Your legs and arms are not injured? Everything is fine.

BOY: [translated] My mom.

UKRAINIAN SOLDIER 1: [translated] Where is your mom?

BOY: [translated] She is … inside.

UKRAINIAN SOLDIER 1: [translated] Go inside. Inside.

UNIDENTIFIED 1: [translated] Calm down. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. Watch out. Go, go, go. Let’s go.

UNIDENTIFIED 2: [translated] Where?

UNIDENTIFIED 1: [translated] Go down. Don’t panic.

UKRAINIAN SOLDIER 2: [translated] Careful. Wait. Bring it higher. Higher.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from 20 Days in Mariupol. For our radio listeners, who are not watching on TV, the clip ends with a pregnant woman — this becomes a scene that is seen around the world — being brought out on a stretcher through the debris, her hands reaching towards her big, big belly, her expression frozen in shock. You would later learn her name is Irina, as the world would learn. And, Mstyslav, as you talk about this bombing of this maternity hospital, if you can also talk about what we struggle with every day in our newsroom, and that is showing the images? Because that is this film, from beginning to end. You yourself are Ukrainian. You have two daughters. Talk about this experience and what you chose to show, and how it was received in the world.

MSTYSLAV CHERNOV: It was a very hard choice. To find a right balance when we were editing the film, to find the right balance to show the audience the gravity of war, without holding back, but at the same time not push the audience away by the graphic images, that was the very big challenge, because it is a danger: If we don’t show enough, then people will kind of accept war for not — you know, because just images are not violent enough. They don’t see people suffering. And also producing a film out of this footage, which everybody saw but mostly without a context, helped us to show the scale of the destruction.

And obviously, it impacted me as a father. It impacted me as a Ukrainian, as a human, in many ways. And one of those ways were that Russians were claiming that all of these women are actresses, that this is all not true, it was all staged. That was painful, too.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about Irina. Talk about this woman. You didn’t know who she was at the time she is brought out. At the time, she’s alive.


AMY GOODMAN: And what you learn happened to her?

MSTYSLAV CHERNOV: So, when she was brought out — the scene was already terrifying when we arrived. There were so many people crying. It was such a panic. And then, an airplane — you could see on the footage that the airplane flies over us one more time, and then they start carrying out the stretcher. And I’ve never seen anything like that before. We just keep filming. And they carry her across this destroyed yard of the hospital. And I see this image, and I understand — I keep filming, and I understand already that it will have a huge impact if we will be able to send these images, because there was no connection all across the city. I understand that if we will be able to send this footage, it will have a huge impact to how the world sees it.

So, they are bringing her to the ambulance, and they ride off. And for the rest of the day, we are searching for where to send this these images. And then, the next day, we tried to follow up with the story. We tried to find out where she went, what happened to her. So we go to the hospital. And unfortunately, we learned from the doctors who treated her that she and her baby have died. Unfortunately, they both died.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mstyslav, could you also — you spent a lot of time in a hospital with medics. Explain what you saw happening over the course of those 20 days as medical supplies diminished, as there were frequent cuts to the electricity, to gas, how doctors were operating under those conditions.

MSTYSLAV CHERNOV: Yeah, so, the whole city — after it got surrounded, the whole city spiraled down into complete chaos. People were in shock, in panic. They didn’t know what to do. And some of them looted stores. Some of them have just been hiding. There was no gas, no electricity.

And the hospital was in a terrible condition, too, because, first of all, no cellphone connection means that if anyone in the city gets injured, if anyone in the city needs help for just different medical reasons, they can’t call an ambulance. They just can’t, because they can’t reach the ambulance. Therefore, they either had to carry their wounded or people who just feel sick to the hospital themselves or to walk. There were people whose relatives were dying. They didn’t know what to do with the bodies, so they were just bringing these bodies and leaving them in front of the hospital, because, well, what else would you do?

And there was — medical supplies were running out. There was really little painkillers and little antibiotics. So, doctors — by the day 15, doctors were just cutting off limbs. If you would get the injury, which in normal conditions would be treatable, the doctors would decide to cut off the limb, just to stop the sepsis, because that was the only way to ensure that the person would not die. That was kind of what was happening in the First World War, I know.

And we slept in the hospital. We slept among the patients right on the floor, because nobody slept near the windows in the wards. Everybody slept on the floor in the corridors. Nobody could sleep well, because there was a constant bombardment all around the hospital. And eventually, hospital got hit several times. Doctors were treating patients on the floor. There was really little food. And whenever we actually were not filming, we were just helping doctors to carry the gurneys or carry food to patients. Doctors never left the hospital. They were just staying there. They lived there with their families.

Eventually, the hospital that we were at got occupied. But before that, it got surrounded, and we thought we were going to be arrested. But, fortunately, we got rescued by Ukrainian army, that broke us out of this. And you see that story in the film. That is a pivotal moment in the film. And as we’re leaving the hospital behind, we know that it gets occupied by Russian forces.

AMY GOODMAN: At a certain point, city workers are bringing bodies from the street, putting them in mass graves, and soldiers shoot a nurse in front of the hospital. Talk about you filming all of this, and the kind of questions or your response to what you were filming. And also, of course, you are Ukrainian, on the ground. It doesn’t even matter if you were from any other place. You are a human being. What this meant? Before we talk about your decision to leave.

MSTYSLAV CHERNOV: Yeah, I’ve never — honestly, throughout these nine years I’ve been working in the conflict zones, I have never experienced anything like that. I don’t mean that this war is necessarily the worst war in the world in the history of humankind, but, for me, personally, that is the worst and the most dangerous and most painful experience I have had, because — also because I am Ukrainian. This is very close to the chest. This is my home. I was born in eastern Ukraine. Our photographer is from the city which is a neighboring city to Mariupol and got quickly occupied. His parents were also in that city.

And the scenes we witnessed, these mass graves, where the children we witnessed — we witnessed doctors trying to save children which died from shelling, and they couldn’t save them. And those children were later buried in the mass graves, because relatives or social services just couldn’t go and bury them properly. The morgues were full. So, there were trucks that were taking bodies to the cemetery and burying them, under the constant shelling, as well. So, I don’t even — I don’t know. It’s just terrifying.

But again, we are Ukrainians. We are international journalists at the same time. We felt that this is our obligation to keep working, because that’s the sole purpose of why we stayed, why we decided to stay in the city that was getting surrounded.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mstyslav, as you say, you made these extraordinary efforts to stay in the city to document so the world would know what exactly the Russian invasion looked like. But despite that documentary footage, as you know, your work, the work of AP, as well as other journalists, has been subjected to an extraordinary campaign of disinformation and discrediting by the Russian state. You say, in fact, that as you were sending, in the documentary, images and dispatches from a satellite phone, that you and your colleagues were called information terrorists, that you received multiple threats. And even after all this footage was made available, the AP photographs, as well as the video footage, people called into question the veracity of the footage and said — some suggested that these were false flag operations and that the women in fact were actresses and not really the pregnant women whom you showed. How do you respond to those kinds of claims?

MSTYSLAV CHERNOV: So, one of the purposes of this film, of the film 20 Days in Mariupol, was to give people, to give the audiences across the world — U.S., Europe, Ukraine, Russia, for that matter — the context, the necessary context, to see and to analyze, because it is very easy to target and put into question 30-second clips or one photo which you see on the news, but it’s much harder to interpret in a different way or to argue with an hour or 90 minutes of footage with enough context to analyze what is really happening. So, one of the purposes of this film is to give people enough context to judge for themselves.

That being said, of course, in a moment when we find out of this campaign, of this misinformation campaign that was happening against us or against AP, we were not surprised, in some way, because that was kind of expected because the similar thing happened to me in 2014, when I was one of the first international journalists who arrived at the scene of MH17 downing, which now we learned from the results of the court cases had been shot down by Russian forces that were in Ukraine at that time. And those images sparked a wave of the misinformation, too.

So, what I’m trying to say here is that our work is not really influenced by all this misinformation, by all this questioning, because regardless of whatever whoever says, we will just keep working. Our job is not to argue with anyone. Our job as AP journalists, or just people who do the work filming whatever they see, is to keep doing that, just keep filming whatever is in front of us, and send this to the international audience. And it’s up to the international audience to judge what they see.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Mstyslav, if you can talk about your decision to leave, how you were able to get out, and what happened immediately after, and your feelings about that?

MSTYSLAV CHERNOV: Yeah, right. I don’t want to give out much of the film. I really think it is quite interesting for the audience to see how events unfold. But I would say we were very lucky, because, at the time, we were surrounded at a hospital. We lost our car, and we had to escape without our car. So, we basically ended up by not having any means to continue our work. We could not move around the city. We did not have any place to charge our batteries, because the hospital was the main place where we could charge our batteries. So our cameras stopped working. We didn’t have our car, and we started searching for the way to leave the city.

And fortunately, we got this help of a person you will see in the film, of a person who risked his own life and the safety of his family to help us to get through these 15 Russian checkpoints, miles and miles of occupied territory. And the main point was not just get us across those checkpoints and the occupied territory, but to have all the hours and hours of unpublished footage, which ultimately resulted in producing this film, you know, hidden in a car to get those hard drives out. That was like a mission to us to do it. And we did it, fortunately.

AMY GOODMAN: And a Lithuanian journalist who also attempted to leave was not as lucky and was killed at a checkpoint.

MSTYSLAV CHERNOV: Yes, yes. Unfortunately, there was a Lithuanian filmmaker, great Lithuanian filmmaker, who also tried to leave the city, and, unfortunately, he was killed. Yeah. So, that could happen to us, as well. We were just lucky enough to escape.

AMY GOODMAN: And the bombing of the theater the next day, which was, well, learned about around the world, with how many people inside? You had been there many times.

MSTYSLAV CHERNOV: Yeah. That is actually a very good example of what could happen if, for example, we decided to leave earlier. Because we left the city. We left feeling so guilty that we couldn’t keep working. And the next day, we learned about this bombing of the Mariupol drama theater. And we know that shelter. We know that hundreds of people are there. Almost a thousand people lived there, from all across the city. And there were no images at all, so we just couldn’t understand what had really happened. And it took us months to get to witnesses to try to reconstruct what happened. And we found out that actually up to 500 people died there. But this is a good example of what is — like, what could happen if no journalists are around. It’s just like a black hole of information, where we can’t really know about the potential war crimes. That is why it’s so crucially important for the journalists to be in the places of the conflict, of the places where there are potential war crimes happening.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Mstyslav, just as we end, once the film festival comes to its end, where will you be going? Will you return to Ukraine?

MSTYSLAV CHERNOV: Yes, we are returning to Ukraine. We are returning to the frontlines. I can’t — for security reasons, I can’t tell specifically the place we’re planning to be. But what is happening right now is a good example of that Mariupol is not a standalone case of complete destruction of the city. Like 90% of all the buildings in Mariupol are destroyed, and they will be just demolished, because they are not subjected to reconstruction. But that is happening to every city the Russian Federation takes now. It happened to Popasna. It happens to Soledar, which was just recently occupied. But there’s nothing to occupy. It is just ruins. And that is what’s happening to Bakhmut right now. So, yes, unfortunately, that’s not — this Mariupol is not the only city. And we will just keep reporting.

AMY GOODMAN: Mstyslav Chernov, we want to thank you so much for being with us, director, producer —


AMY GOODMAN: — cinematographer of the documentary 20 Days in Mariupol, which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. He’s an award-winning Associated Press journalist and president of the Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers, speaking to us from Salt Lake City in Utah.

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