Many documentaries at Sundance tackle interesting figures, alive or dead. Some dive deep into longstanding issues such as racism or climate change, possibly from a local level or a macro level.
There has probably rarely been a documentary such as 20 Days in Mariupol, which premiered at the Egyptian Friday and documents the war in Ukraine that is still being fought daily.
“What you see here is happening right now,” said the documentary’s director, AP journalist Mstyslav Chernov. “It’s not history yet, it’s present.”
The movie, from Frontline and AP, is a harrowing look at the beginning of the Russian invasion and how things got progressively worse for the residents of the city. Chernow, along with his colleagues Evgeniy Maloletka and Vasilisa Stepanenko, document a city under siege while also putting their lives on the line. The journalists struggle to get their work out to the world as the city gets increasingly cut off. But it’s the residents that suffer most, and the movie punches the gut by showing the aftereffects of the many bombings and shellings, particularly the maternity hospitals.
While documentaries such as this can come under attack for being “fake,” Chernov addresses the move head-on, showing not only some of the salvos from the Russian propaganda machine but also, effectively, showing how his reporting made it to NBC, CBS, MSNBC and other outlets around the world, legitimizing his work.
After 20 days, the filmmaker and his team got out just in the nick of time as Russians were hunting down the group from AP that dared to report the truth of civilian attacks.
It’s an unflinching and tough look that left the packed house truly shell-shocked, sighing and in tears due to the tragedy. The audience also gave it a thunderous ovation as it’s a testament to the power of the moving image.
Chernov, onstage with his colleagues and producers, cut a somber figure, expressing guilt about not doing enough or for even leaving the city in the first place. The day after they left, the Drama Theatre was famously bombed, and they felt that.
“There was no one to film it, no information collected,” he said. That’s when they realized they should take their footage and make a feature-length documentary. “Those 30 hours, if we work with them, at least we will be able to show the scale. What you see in the news is probably one minute [or] 30 seconds. That doesn’t really give you the sense scale of the suffering of the people, doesn’t go deeper in their stories.”
Chernov and his team haven’t stopped reporting from the front lines, and he said he’s sometimes asked, after almost dying in the city, why continue to risk your life?
To that, he said, “What we showed you is maybe one percent of what was really happening. I still feel guilty for not being able to capture everything or show everything … That propels you to do more.”
He did offer a few details of the day of his escape, which did not make it into the movie as it was never filmed. Once word broke that he and his team were being hunted, doctors in one hospital covered for them, giving them scrubs as decoy uniforms, hiding their equipment.
On the morning of their extraction, a team of soldiers rushed into the hospital, demanding to be given the journalists. Not seeing any choice, Chernov basically said, “Here we are,” and prepared for the worst. It turned out, however, that the soldiers were Ukrainian.
“They said, ‘We have to extract you, we have orders,’” recalled Chernov.
The war isn’t done and neither is Chernov. “When Sundance is over, we will go back and keep working,” he said, adding, that maybe after the war, if they have time to think, only then, will he maybe begin to deal with what he’s witnessed.