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Mstyslav Chernov during the 96th Academy Awards Oscar nominees luncheon on Feb. 12, 2024, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in California.Chris Pizzello/The Associated Press

When Ukrainian director Mstyslav Chernov received this year’s best documentary feature Oscar for 20 Days in Mariupol, he said he wished he had never made the film. That, he explained, is because he would rather the event it portrays – the Russian siege of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol in early 2022 – had never happened. We asked him what it took to make the project happen.

Your documentary has won more than 20 awards, including, recently, an Oscar. What does this mean to you?

This is an opportunity to tell the truth about the tragedy in Mariupol to a huge audience. Every step of this journey was a chance for us to show how urgent and important this story still is. We live in a world where we are bombarded by constant tragedies, by news that is coming from everywhere live, and it’s quite easy to forget important moments of history. And as a Ukrainian filmmaker, as a person who owes his life to the people of Mariupol, I don’t want their story and their tragedy to be forgotten. It’s quite hard to watch the film, but also, it’s quite hard to keep inviting people to this, to be in a war zone. And every recognition helped in that way.

What was it like shooting the film?

For any planned filming, there should be schedules, a planned amount of work, and so on. However, in the conditions of the shelled Mariupol, when your life is constantly in danger, when there is unpredictability of the air strikes and rocket attacks, and when you don’t have electricity to charge your batteries – you don’t have enough cards to record everything you need to. This is true life. A lot of technical challenges were happening, a lot of security issues.

Is there anything that wasn’t included in the film because you had to erase footage to make space on memory cards for more important moments?

We erased our life with AP photographer [and collaborator on the film] Evgeniy Maloletka in Mariupol, how we melted snow to drink water, how we just eat or sleep. They were not so important for the film, because the story was not about us, but about [other] people, and the main character of this film is Mariupol. It’s hard to think about the shots that I just didn’t record, because I hid from the bombing, because I didn’t manage to press the record button, because I just tried to survive. And I still remember these shots, they stand in front of my eyes.

There were other children who died, who could not be saved. I filmed them, but I decided not to show them all, because you have to maintain a very respectful and careful balance between what to show the viewer, so that the war does not seem fake, but do it in a way that does not push them away, so that they do not psychologically close themselves off from the pain. This balance has to be very carefully maintained. There is nothing worse than showing war as something acceptable.

You filmed a policeman, Volodymyr, to whom you owe your rescue and the release of the movie. He helped you get everything through Russian roadblocks. How did that feel?

We were much luckier than the Lithuanian documentarian Mantas Kvedaravicius, who was killed by Russian soldiers when he tried to leave by the same road we were leaving on two days before. On March 14 and 15 [2022] there were no systems on Russian websites. There were no lists of people they were looking for. There were no telephone checks with special programs or computers. Usually, people were allowed to leave, because thousands and thousands of cars were leaving. And this chaos helped us to get through.

The most difficult part is to cross the front line, when bullets, missiles and artillery shells are flying over your head. It’s an active fight, and of course, if you go alone, you have almost no chance of survival.

At some moments in the documentary, you drop the camera, as though you don’t have the strength to continue filming. Why did you decide to keep these shots in the film?

It’s all thanks to [editor and producer] Michelle Mizner. She said that such moments are very important for the film, for the perspective, and now I agree with her, because we are trying to bring an audience as close as possible to the real experience of horror. How is it to be trapped, and be scared for your life and for your loved ones? How is it to be desperate? And having these shots in a film brings audiences closer to their reality, closer to their real human experience. So, it doesn’t become a voyeuristic, painful experience. It becomes a much more empathetic and real story. And that’s how we wanted people to see it.

At the same time, it was always important to make sure that this is not my story, that this is not a story about me, and it’s a story about people. And that’s why you rarely see me or the backstage of our work. Let’s say you clearly see my face only by the end of the film, when we escape. And that was a conscious, calculated decision about how much of me will be in the film.

Do you keep in touch with any of the people you were filming?

We found 99 per cent of the people who are in the film. For example, a boy who was under the rubble of a fire station. We were afraid and couldn’t find him. Recently, his family contacted us. He is alive and now is going through rehabilitation in Chicago, and it was just amazing.

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