Mstyslav Chernov, Raney Aronson-Rath, Vasilisa Stepanenko and Evgeniy Maloletka on stage. Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty Images
Mstyslav Chernov, at front, is joined by Raney Aronson-Rath, Vasilia Stepanenko and Evgeniy Maloletka at the Academy Awards ceremony in March. The team’s film, 20 Days in Mariupol, won Best Documentary honors.

20 Days in Mariupol 

Powerful Documentary Profiles Civilian Suffering in Ukraine  

Responding to reports that an invasion was imminent, journalist Mstyslav Chernov and colleagues headed for Mariupol in eastern Ukraine, a likely first target for Russian aggression, given its strategic location at the mouth of the Kalmius River. 

For 10 years, Chernov had covered international conflict for the Associated Press, but this war could be expected to affect him especially profoundly. He is from Kharkiv, Ukraine, just 208 miles from Mariupol. 

Map illustrating Mariupol’s location.
Mariupol, in eastern Ukraine, is located at the mouth of the Kalmius River, making it strategically significant. The city fell to Russian control 86 days after it was invaded by Russian forces in February 2022.  

When Chernov arrived in Mariupol, residents were going about business as usual, but an hour later, bombs struck the outskirts of the city. 

First came the bombs and missiles, then Russian tanks marked with “Z,” a Russian symbol for war, arrived. When widespread automatic weapons fire was heard, Mariupol residents knew that invaders had penetrated the city. As the fighting escalated, journalists departed. 

Chernov and his teammates stayed. Past the point where Russians had surrounded the city and the journalists’ escape from Mariupol was far from assured, they stayed. 

Said Chernov, “We had no idea if we would get out alive.” Just getting images and footage out of Mariupol would prove difficult. When the internet went down, Chernov found a location with cell phone service and managed to send snippets of video to his editors, 10 seconds at a time. They would be aired worldwide.  

As of April 2022, nearly half of Mariupol had suffered grave damage.

Footage obtained by Chernov and his colleagues in war-torn Ukraine forms the basis for his first feature film, 20 Days in Mariupol, a documentary he wishes he had never had occasion to make. It has been an auspicious debut. The film has won a long list of honors including an Academy Award for best documentary and a Sundance Film Festival audience award. 

Rolling Stone magazine has called the film a “harrowing testament to the power, the necessity and the toll of documenting life in a combat zone.” Its score is made up largely of wailing and sobbing. To watch it is to be reminded that human civilization has not outlived atrocity, that all democracies are fragile, that the appetite for freedom is a compelling motivator that spawns heroic acts. 

Chernov documents attacks on civilian targets including Maternity Hospital No. 3. Hospital personnel scramble to prepare wounded patients for transport to Emergency Hospital No. 2. Central to the film is footage of a pregnant woman being wheeled toward an ambulance on a gurney. She writhes atop a watermelon-print sheet. 

Emergency personnel wheel a woman wounded in an attack by Russians on a maternity hospital in Mariupol toward an ambulance. She and her unborn child later died in an emergency hospital.

The woman emotionally captivates Chernov, who later tracks her down only to discover that she and her unborn child had not survived. 

In the film … 

Hospitals are overrun. 

Painkiller supplies dry up. 

Children die. 

Children witness death. 

Morgues overflow. 

Mass graves are filled. 

Good people become better. 

Bad people become worse. 

The most basic desires are denied. Says one Mariupol resident, “I just want to live in Ukraine in peace and quiet.” 

The colors in Ukraine’s flag represent a field of grain beneath a blue sky. Throughout much of the war-torn country, the flag flies among areas reduced to rubble.

Anastasiia Khudiaieva fled Ukraine with her family days before the invasion began. She had been disturbed by Western reports that Russian troops were massed on the Russia/Ukraine border. The family lived briefly in Cyprus and for six months in Germany before moving to the United States. 

Today, Khudiaieva is the special projects coordinator at TechFarms, a business incubator located in Panama City Beach, Florida. Her duties, she is pleased to say, also involve work with ArroTech Corp., a developer of mine-detecting drones with plans for their deployment in Ukraine, and altruTek, a nonprofit working to support humanitarian projects including a de-mining effort in Ukraine, where the presence of unexploded ordnance prevents farmers from working their fields. 

ArroTech has developed a metal-detecting autonomous drone capable of mapping the locations of unexploded land mines that are preventing farmers from working their fields in Ukraine.

“I don’t remember a moment when I was not crying,” Khudiaieva said about her experience watching 20 Days in Mariupol.   

In war, the truth is taken prisoner. It becomes dangerously difficult to obtain, secure and disseminate. Doing so requires courage, selflessness and dedication to the highest, purest and most enduring aims of journalism. 

The U.S. Civil War saw the birth of war photography that ensured the conflict would be documented in a newly powerful way. The Vietnam War is regarded as the first televised war. Footage that led national news broadcasts fueled opposition to the conflict and helped make continuing support for the war politically untenable. 

Today, Americans are beset with war fatigue. We are weary of wars that seem unwinnable, wars in which “victory” may be hard to define. We fear the possible widening of conflict in the Middle East or of Chinese aggression toward Taiwan. 

But we should not look away. We should honor the truth and truth seekers by watching 20 Days in Mariupol. 

Before and after photos illustrate the damage sustained by neighborhoods in Mariupol as a product of Ukraine’s invasion by Russia.

Assisted by a policeman, Chernov, his team, his equipment and his images are united with a Red Cross convoy that is leaving Ukraine along a humanitarian corridor that is open one day, closed the next. 

Eighty-six days after the invasion began, Mariupol fell to the Russians. Kharkiv, while embattled, has to this point avoided capture. 

Says Chernov about his film, “It is powerful to watch, but it must be powerful to watch” — in order to do its job, in order to change the world. 

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