Many documentaries at Sundance deal with interesting characters, living or dead. Some delve into longstanding issues like racism or climate change, be it at the local or macro level.
Perhaps it’s rare to find a documentary like 20 days in Mariupolpremiered on Friday in Egypt and chronicles the war in Ukraine that is still raging on a daily basis.
“What you see here is happening right now,” said documentary director and AP journalist Mstyslav Chernov. “It’s not history, it’s the present.”
The film, from Frontline and AP, is a heartbreaking look at the beginnings of Russia’s invasion and how things are getting worse for the city’s inhabitants. Chernow, along with her colleagues Evgeniy Maloletka and Vasilisa Stepanenko, document a city under siege while putting their lives first. Journalists struggle to get their work out into the world as the city grows increasingly isolated. But it is the residents who suffer the most, and the film strikes a chord by showing the aftermath of numerous bombings and shelling, especially of maternity hospitals.
While documentaries like this can be criticized as “fake,” Chernov tackles the issue directly, not only showing some relief from the Russian propaganda machine, but also giving effectively saw how his reporting reached NBC, CBS, MSNBC and other outlets around the world, legitimizing his work.
After 20 days, the filmmaker and his team were out just as the Russians were hunting the group from the AP who dared to report the truth about the civilian attacks.
It was an unflinching and tough look that left the crowded house truly shocked, sighing and in tears at the tragedy. Audiences also gave it a standing ovation as it was a testament to the power of moving images.
Chernov, on stage with his colleagues and producers, was upset, expressing guilt for not doing enough or even leaving the city in the first place. The day after they left, the famous Drama Theater was bombed, and they felt it.
“No one was filming, no information was collected,” he said. That’s when they realized they should shoot their scene and make a full-length documentary. “Those 30 hours, if we work with them, at least we’ll be able to show scale. What you see in the news is probably a minute [or] 30 seconds. That doesn’t really show you the extent of people’s suffering, doesn’t go deeper into their stories.”
Chernov and his team haven’t stopped reporting from the front lines, and he says he’s sometimes asked, after nearly dying in the city, why continue to risk his life?
About that, he said, “What we show you is probably one percent of what’s actually happening. I still feel guilty for not being able to capture everything or show everything… It motivates you to do more.”
He provided few details about the date of his runaway, which was not included in the film as it was never filmed. When word got out that he and his team were being hunted, doctors in a hospital protected them, dressing them as bait uniforms, hiding their equipment.
On the morning of the rescue, a group of soldiers burst into the hospital, demanding that the journalists be handed over. Seeing no choice, Chernov basically said, “Here we are,” and prepared for the worst. However, it turned out that the soldiers were Ukrainians.
Chernov recalls: “They said, ‘We have to rescue you, we have orders.
The war is not over and neither is Chernov. “When Sundance is over, we will come back and keep working,” he said, adding that maybe after the war, if they had time to think, only then would he. I can begin to deal with what I’ve seen.