A father crying over the body of his 16-year-old son, who was hit by a Russian missile in Mariupol while playing football with his friends. Frightened and wounded pregnant women being pulled out of a maternity ward, minutes after the building was hit in an airstrike. The first sighting of a Russian tank - the letter “Z” plastered on its side - turning its turret toward the top floor of a hospital as Moscow’s forces took over the southern Ukrainian city.
These are all harrowing scenes documented by journalists Mstyslav Chernov, Evgeniy Maloletka and Vasilisa Stepanenko before they were forced into using the humanitarian corridor out of the besieged city as the Russians were closing it. Those left behind have been living under Russian rule ever since, for nearly two years.
20 Days in Mariupol, the Chernov-directed documentary covering the first few weeks of Russia’s advance into the southern city, has just been nominated for an Academy Award.
The two Ukrainian photographers Chernov and Maloletka, who work for the Associated Press news agency, as well as field producer Stepanenko, were the last journalists to leave Mariupol – risking their lives to tell the city’s story.
But for Chernov, who also wrote the documentary, the Oscar nomination will never just belong to him or his colleagues, but rather the residents who have suffered through Russian occupation.
“I owe this to the people of Mariupol,” he told The Independent, in a sit down interview a day after the announcement. “This is their Oscar nomination; it is not mine. And if it ever gets recognised as highly as an award, that will be for them as well.”
Chernov, Maloletka and Stepanenko have been praised for bearing witness to some of the earliest records of Russian atrocities during its full-scale invasion of Ukraine – even if Russia still denies they ever happened.
A day after the trio left Mariupol, Russia fired two 500 kg bombs on the city’s drama theatre, killing hundreds of people, including many children, who had gathered in what had then become one of the largest shelters in the city.
It remains one of the deadliest attacks since the war in Ukraine began. An AP investigation, for which Chernov played an instrumental role, suggested that 600 people were killed in the hit.
Amnesty International, having conducted another investigation, concluded that the strike was “a clear war crime committed by Russian forces ... deliberately targeting Ukrainian civilians”.
The Russian defence ministry still blames the Azov Regiment, a Ukrainian outfit that defended Mariupol until its fall in May that year, without providing evidence. The AP investigation has found that none of the witnesses saw Ukrainian soldiers operating inside the building.
In a later statement, the UK ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), one of the continent’s principle human right’s body, cited the Mariupol theatre strike as it pledged to “not become numb to the suffering caused by Russia's illegal invasion”.
Chernov and his team may not have been present for that attack, but Russia’s habit of denying its role in atrocities, as well as the frequency of its deadly strikes, has shown the value of 20 Days in Mariupol.
Some day, Chernov hopes, the documentary will be shown in that reconstructed theatre.
It is this sentiment that highlights the Ukrainian filmmaker’s undying drive not just to do the job of holding Russia to account, but also to honour those that he has filmed.
“Every single person we met during those 20 days did something for us to be able to be where we are right now,” he said.
He mentions the special evacuation force that rescued him and his team from a hospital behind the front line on the left bank of the city. He also mentions the civilians that shared their food, water and shelter with them during the 20 days, many of whom are still in Mariupol.
And he mentions Volodymyr, the Ukrainian policeman that throughout the film is seen protecting and motivating the photographers to keep documenting what was happening. He first appears on screen after Chernov films the aftermath of Russian strikes on the Mariupol maternity ward; multiple pregnant women, we later find out, died as a result of the attack.
Volodymyr, the hero of the "20 Days in Mariupol," was injured yesterday in Pokrovsk.
He is the police officer who saved our lives helping to escape from the besieged city. Hang in there, my friend. Mariupol is waiting for your return.#Mariupol #20daysinmariupol #Documentary pic.twitter.com/U8mOd2XPlO
— Мstyslav Chernov (@mstyslav9) August 8, 2023
“I think Volodymyr understood the importance of those images even more than us,” Chernov said. “The fact that he is a policeman - he has the mind of someone who knows the law - he recognised the importance of getting the original files out of the city, that they may be used for trials.
“He was kind of a moral drive for me because at some point, you feel so powerless. You cannot stop a bullet with a camera. You cannot stop catastrophic bleeding while you are taking a picture. You do feel at moments that you are not making a difference.
“So, his words, his reassurances, his dedication to the mission, just to get us and those images out, really helped us to survive.”
Volodymyr would eventually volunteer to drive the journalists, alongside his family, through a perilous green corridor out of Mariupol on day 20. They passed more than a dozen Russian checkpoints on that journey, trying to catch up with the last Red Cross convoy that left hours before. At each checkpoint, Volodymyr risked his life.
But the policeman returned to work soon after the evacuation. And in August this year, Chernov says the policeman was injured while evacuating a civilian in the eastern Ukrainian town of Pokrovsk, roughly 30 miles from the frontline.
He was hit by a Russian double-tap strike, Chernov said, which is when a second rocket is fired at emergency workers rescuing those injured in the first hit.
“He got multiple shrapnel injuries to his lungs and the rest of his body,” Chernov said. “He is recovering at the moment. He is slowly coming back to the surface.”
Like Volodymyr, Chernov did not hesitate to go back to work after leaving Mariupol. He wasted no time investigating the Mariupol theatre strike, recreating what happened inside the theater on that day using the accounts of 23 survivors, rescuers, and people intimately familiar with its new life as a bomb shelter.
“I have to keep covering news, daily news in Ukraine,” he said. “That is my primary task.”
Asked if he plans to go back to Mariupol, he looked as if the answer was obvious. “If it gets de-occupied, of course,” he said. “There are so many more investigations to be done there.”
Visiting the site of the destroyed Mariupol theatre will be high on his list.
It is clear that Chernov, who has been a conflict journalist for nearly a decade, struggles to battle the dichotomy between being a war reporter and everything that comes with being a celebrated Oscar-nominee. It is clearer still that he would rather be back in Ukraine.
He was loath to be filmed in his hotel because, as he put it, there are people dying in his home country. He doesn’t want to be seen enjoying what is, in effect, the spoils of tragedy.
It is hard not to wonder how he will then deal with the extravagance of the Academy Awards in a few weeks time, surrounded by A-list celebrities revered simply for their ability to act.
“I will go,” he said, with not a shred of excitement evident in his voice. “Whenever I have a chance to present the film, or keep telling the story, I do that.
“I also feel that this is an achievement for Ukraine, for Ukrainian cinema. It is very rare that a Ukrainian film makes it that far. So, there is also that responsibility.”
Despite the grandeur of the event, for Chernov, the Oscars is one more chance to set the record straight on Russia’s vicious war against Ukraine.
The war photographer will finish as he started.