'20 Days in Mariupol' presents an unparalleled close-up of the siege carried out on the strategic Ukrainian port city during the Russian invasion. Crafted by Pulitzer-Prize-winner Mstyslav Chernov, the documentary is an unflinching testament to the raw brutality and haunting inhumanity of war.
Mstyslav’s camera reveals relentless realities: pregnant women escaping bombed-out maternity hospitals, civilians scraping survival together out of despair, children’s makeshift graves. Along with his AP colleagues, photographer Evgeniy Maloletka and producer Vasilisa Stepanenko – the last international journalists to remain in the city – Mstyslav grapples with the overwhelming task of not just documenting these harrowing scenes but also ensuring that the world gets to see them.
This film is both a documentary and an appeal to humanity’s collective conscience – a painful, intimate journey into the terrifying duality of war’s banality and savagery. In his director’s statement, Mstyslav shares a rare glimpse into what he personally experienced during filming. Explore an excerpt here or delve into the full account online.
Excerpt from the director’s statement on ‘20 Days in Mariupol’
The Russians were hunting us down. They had a list of names, including ours, and they were closing in. We were the only international journalists left in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, and we had been documenting its siege by Russian troops for more than two weeks. We were reporting inside the hospital when gunmen began stalking the corridors. Surgeons gave us white scrubs to wear as camouflage. Suddenly at dawn, a dozen soldiers burst in: ‘Where are the journalists, for fuck’s sake?’ I looked at their armbands, blue for Ukraine, and tried to calculate the odds of them being Russians in disguise. I stepped forward to identify myself. ‘We’re here to get you out,’ they said.The walls of the surgery were shaking from the artillery and machine gun fire outside, and it seemed safer to stay inside. But the Ukrainian soldiers were under orders to take us with them. We ran into the street, abandoning the doctors who had sheltered us, the pregnant women who had been shelled and the people who were sleeping in the hallways because they had nowhere else to go. I felt terrible leaving them all behind.
Nine minutes, maybe ten, an eternity through roads and bombed-out apartment buildings. As shells crashed nearby, we dropped to the ground. Time was measured from one shell to the next, our bodies tense and breath held. Shockwave after shockwave jolted my chest, and my hands went cold. We reached an entryway, and armoured cars whisked us to a darkened basement. Only then did we learn from a policeman why the Ukrainians had risked the lives of soldiers to extract us from the hospital. ‘If they catch you, they will get you on camera and they will make you say that everything you filmed is a lie,’ he said. ‘All your efforts and everything you have done in Mariupol will have been in vain.’ The officer who had once begged us to show the world his dying city was now pleading with us to go. He nudged us towards the thousands of battered cars preparing to leave Mariupol. It was 15 March. We had no idea if we would make it out alive.
Born in Eastern Ukraine in 1985, Mstyslav Chernov has always been drawn to the truth, whatever form it takes. A fearless storyteller, he is dedicated to shedding light on the truth hidden in the shadows. Mstyslav once shared in an article that he is driven to ‘show the world the devastation first-hand.’ And show it he has, in over fifty countries across the globe, bearing witness to humanity’s triumphs, struggles and sorrows.
Mstyslav’s work does not discriminate. Through photos, videos and text, he has explored many facets of humanity – the beautiful and the tragic, the ordinary and the extraordinary. His work for The Associated Press has been reported across the globe and has appeared in the world’s most prominent media outlets.
His roots are in Kharkiv, a city just twenty miles from the Russian border. It was here, as a teenager, that Chernov was first introduced to the harsh realities of conflict, learning to handle a gun as part of the school curriculum. ‘It seemed pointless. Ukraine, I reasoned, was surrounded by friends,’ he recalls.
Mstyslav's journey has taken him from local Ukrainian media outlets to the international stage. His early works on social and healthcare issues in Ukraine, Myanmar and Cambodia were the first steps he took into global storytelling. His work received attention, and he soon found himself working with the United Nations, the International Red Cross and other esteemed NGOs. He became a voice for the voiceless, someone who conveyed their stories to the world.
Since joining the Associated Press, he has reported from the heart of conflicts – from the European migration crisis to wars in Syria and Afghanistan. But his first and perhaps most poignant assignments were the ones closest to home, beginning in 2014 with the Russian downing of flight MH-17. As the war moved closer to his beloved city of Kharkiv and the city of Mariupol, he drove into the night with long-time colleague and photographer Evgeniy Maloletka and field producer Vasilisa Stepanenko. ‘But few people believed a war was coming, and by the time most realised their mistake, it was too late,’ he shares, his words painting a grim picture.
His courage and commitment have borne fruit in the form the award-winning film ‘20 Days in Mariupol,’ based on his work with colleagues Maloletka and Stepanenko, for which they received the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Today, Mstyslav Chernov is continuing on his quest for truth, determined, as always, to show the world ‘the devastation first-hand.’