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'20 Days in Mariupol' wins Sundance audience award

Christine Lehnen
February 2, 2023

The documentary film from the Ukrainian port city captures Russian war crimes and the horrors of the war in Ukraine. Its makers were on the hit list of Putin's army.

A photojournalist walks through a wasted landscape filled with trash in the fog
'20 Days in Mariupol' documents the devastating Russian siege of the Ukranian port cityImage: mstyslav chernov/AP/Sundance Institute

The documentary "20 Days in Mariupol" won the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

To shoot the 94-minute documentary, Associated Press war reporter Mstyslav Chernov went with photographer Evgeniy Maloletka and field producer Vasilisa Stepanenko to the port city of Mariupol on February 24, 2022, where they then spent 20 days documenting life in the city as it was attacked by the Russian army.

"The goal was to help viewers grasp the extent of the destruction and suffering," Chernov told DW. "When people watch the news, they see at most 30 seconds, one minute or one and a half minutes. These are just fragments, so they can't know the whole picture."

The journalists' powerful footage circulated around the world, gaining attention.

Chernov and Maloletka were awarded DW's Freedom of Speech Award last year for their work. 

The documentary, which has now been released almost a year after Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, features harrowing footage from the early days of the war. In it, a doctor leads the journalists to a hospital in the basement. They see the bodies of those who could not be saved lying covered in bloody sheets; their legs and shoes still peeking out from under the fabric.

Two people sit in winter clothes in a bunker while holding a light between them
Some of the 30 hours of footage Chernov and team captured while in Mariupol included quiet momentsImage: mstyslav chernov/AP/Sundance Institute

Shocking images

Two bundles wrapped in colorful fabric lay in another room of the basement. The doctor reports that these are children who could not be saved. "When they came to us, they were still alive," he tells reporters. You get used to a lot of things, he explains, but not gruesome images like these.

Much of the footage from "20 Days in Mariupol" is shocking. When the Russian army attacks a hospital, a maternity ward is swiftly evacuated. The camera captures images of a heavily pregnant woman being carried out of the hospital on a stretcher. She holds her hand protectively over her belly as if it could manage to protect her from Russian bombs. Viewers learn that she and her unborn child do not survive the attack.

'We needed to do more'

Seeing children die was the worst part of making the film, Chernov told DW. "I was overwhelmed by emotion at every step in the process," he said. "I cried while filming. I cried while editing. I cried when I saw the film in the theater." He strongly maintains that such feelings are important. "It always hurts. But this is what makes us human," he said.

A man speaks into a microphone at a podium with a banner for the Sundance Film Festival hanging in the background
Chernov's film '20 Days in Mariupol' premiered at the Sundance Film FestivalImage: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/picture alliance

The journalists also document the looting that took place as food ran out. A woman in a pink cap rebukes a man holding a yellow soccer ball, saying: "You stole that! Give it back. What are you doing here anyway?"

Chernov has reported from war zones in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. "20 Days in Mariupol" was edited from roughly 30 hours of footage he and his colleagues brought back from Mariupol.

"I aired maybe around 30 or 40 minutes of it," Chernov said. "We felt guilty for leaving and felt we needed to do more. That's how we came up with the idea to make a film."

On the Sundance Film Festival website, Chernov describes the documentary as his most personal film yet. In addition to bearing witness, he wants the film to be a tribute to those who lost their lives in the war. To this day, Mariupol remains occupied by Russian troops.

A group of men and women dresed in mostly black stand in front of a banner at the sSundance Film Festival
The film team included Chernov (3rd from right), AP field producer Vasilisa Stepanenko (2nd from left) and AP photographer Evgeniy Maloletka (3rd from left), among othersImage: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/picture alliance

According to a report by German public television station ARD, Maloletka, Chernov and Stepanenko left Mariupol under the protection of the Ukrainian army, which had received indications that the journalists were on the Russian force's hit list. 

Their footage not only documents possible Russian war crimes, such as an attack on a hospital, but also provides a glimpse into the dangerous work of war reporters and their staff.

In accepting the Sundance Festival's Audience Award, Chernov thanked the audience members "who didn't look away" from the atrocities of the ongoing conflict.

"The prize is proof that the film was well received by the public, that people have not turned away from the tragedy, that it matters to the broader public," Chernov told DW, adding that this makes the audience award more important to him than any other prize. "This isn't an accomplishment for us; it's an honor to be able to show people everything and to provide proof of possible war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine for the historical record."

This article was originally written in German.