‘20 Days in Mariupol’ Filmmakers on the Necessity of Documenting the ‘Unbearable Human Pain’ of Ukraine War (Video)

Sundance 2023: “We do feel an obligation to keep telling these stories, to make sure that everything that was possible to document will stay in history,” director Mstyslav Chernov told TheWrap

After a group of Ukrainian journalists were able to escape the city of Mariupol, which fell under siege at the beginning of Russia’s invasion, they felt their work was incomplete. With more than 30 hours of unpublished footage, the AP journalists teamed up with PBS Frontline to create what would become “20 Days in Mariupol,” premiering this weekend at Sundance.

Director-producer Mstyslav Chernov, still photographer Evgeniy Maloletka, field producer Vasilisa Stepanenko, and PBS producer Michelle Mizner stopped by TheWrap’s Portrait and Video Studio at The Music Lodge for a discussion about their new documentary.

“We felt an obligation [as] journalists, as well as Ukrainians,” Chernov told TheWrap’s CEO and Editor in Chief Sharon Waxman. “This is our community. This is our country. And we do feel an obligation to keep telling these stories to make sure that everything that was possible to document will stay in history.”

He added, “Maybe in 50 years’ time or 100 years of time, someone would ask, ‘What happened? So how’d that invasion start? What happened to Mariupol?’ – will go and see this and will know how terrible the war is. How unbearable human pain is.”

Even though the film is told through the perspective of journalists, he said, their feelings about the horrors they witnessed were “secondary” to those of Mariupol’s residents.

“It’s very important for [the film] not to stand in the way, for the audience to feel what actually residents of Mariupol felt,” he said.

All involved were deeply affected by the scenes they captured on film, from falling bombs to children dying in front of their parents in the hospital.

Malotka recalled documenting these incidents “with tears in your eyes.” He remembered “doctors screaming, ‘Show this to Putin, because they might see this, that they’re killing Ukrainians.’ This is really hard to understand for ourselves as well, that this is our relatives or friends.”

Mizner, the PBS producer, spoke about what it was like to work on the film, having not been with them in Ukraine.

“They’re very humble and [do] not admit that the reason why we have documented evidence of these potential war crimes is because they were on the ground filming it,” she said.

The resulting 90-minute documentary speaks to “why it’s important sometimes to work in a team where you aren’t.”

“I was looking at the footage and in a way that I could see Mstyslav’s personality shines through and the way that he was filming things, the way that a tragedy would happen. And he would drop the camera and you could just feel the emotion coming from him and get to know him in that way. So he became sort of like the perspective through which you’re seeing this unfold.”

Watch the full interview above.

TheWrap’s Portrait and Video Studio at The Music Lodge during the 2023 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by NFP along with support from Sylvania and HigherDOSE