Mstyslav Chernov
Daryna Anastasieva
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Short profile

Mstyslav Chernov is a military correspondent, director, videographer, photographer, photojournalist, and writer, known for his coverage of the Revolution of Dignity; Russia's war against Ukraine; wars in Iraq, Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Afghanistan; as well as his art installations and exhibitions. Chernov is an Associated Press journalist, president of the Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers, laureate of the 2023 Sundance festival in the "Audience awards" category, winner of the 2023 Royal Television Society British Media award.

At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, unlike the majority of journalists who relocated to Kyiv, you stayed in the east, and moreover, you went from Bakhmut to Mariupol. Is it journalistic intuition or analysis and understanding of that there will be the most difficult?

— This is not only intuition. Our team was responsible for Donbas; we filmed in Donbas. Mariupol was the most important city of Donbas, the most symbolic and strategically important, so it was obvious that we had to go there. The problem was that we all understood that sooner or later, the city would be surrounded if the Russians advanced. And on February 23, there were no doubts, and it was not an easy decision to go and stay there. We understood what we were going for, so we planned several options for action: how to leave or lie low, hide, and find a way out. However, we did not know that the attention would be focused on us, and that our names would be circulated so much that we would be called information terrorists.

Is documentary cinema becoming outdated? How long does it take before it becomes irrelevant?

— This is a broad question. In general, the format in which different generations receive information is changing now. Young people get it mostly from video, meaning that documentaries are becoming more important as historical documents rather than just information. When someone wants to understand what was happening in Mariupol in the first days of the full-scale Russian invasion, they are more likely to watch a movie than read an article on Wikipedia. The world is changing, and documentaries are becoming more important. Even from the historical perspective: if we want to know what happened fifty or a hundred years ago, we don't look at the columns of newspapers, we don't take textbooks so often. We read books, sometimes even fiction. We watch movies. That is, the large format affects our perception of the past, and the news structures our perception of what is happening right now. That's why documentaries are so important because they go down in history.

You have worked with the news a lot. What is the difference between news and documentaries?

— I still work in the news. Probably, after I made this film, I will never be able to go back to regular news and continue shooting it the way I did a year ago because I want to go further, ask more questions, learn more deeply, ask questions that I can't get quick answers to. Even this documentary allowed me to tell not only what was happening but also to ask important questions for me and the audience about why it was happening. That doesn't mean we've found the answers, but at least we've asked these questions. Interestingly, after one screening at the Sundance Film Festival, a girl came up to me and said, "You know, I'll never be able to watch the news the way I used to because this movie changed my perspective." The film shows the space in which the news is filmed today, but it is not thirty seconds or one minute. We see more context in the film about how journalists work and what happens to people when a news story ends.

Do documentaries influence society more than news?

— Yes, but it doesn't work immediately. It seems that the news has a wider audience anyway, especially if it's some world-famous moments, but the film gives a context, an understanding of what really happened.

Let me give you an example: one of the film's most important moments is the bombing of the maternity hospital. Probably half the planet saw these shots, photos and videos that we took, but they didn't see what had happened five minutes before, five minutes after and this opens up opportunities for manipulation. Propaganda can take this short piece of the video and say, “Ah, see? There is no blood here!" In fact, there was blood, but it remained behind the context; it was earlier or later. The shorter the plot that people see, the less context it contains and the more opportunities for propaganda, and interpretations of these images.

Is there "war fatigue" in the foreign audience? What is the focus of attention in Europe and the USA on Russian aggression in Ukraine?

— These are normal processes in the information space, and they have waves. Sometimes we see how something big has happened, the wave rises, and everyone remembers the Russian invasion of Ukraine again. The wave goes down; other things happen, so people forget. And this is natural because people get tired. It is important to understand this even for the Ukrainian context because the war in Ukraine is not the only war on earth. All conflicts in the world are connected in one way or another if you look deeper. So it's good that people are seeing the broader context of the news.

On the other hand, apparently, after 2015, when the world almost forgot about the Russian invasion, Ukraine simply disappeared from the columns, from the main news, and this is what allowed Russia to prepare for the invasion in 2022.

The job of journalists is to continue reminding about important stories and where they happen to people, about what is happening to the residents of Mariupol, Soledar, Bakhmut, Kherson. Reminding every day!

When during the Sundance festival, after showing my film (the film won the "Audience Awards" — ed.), I went on stage and said, "What you just watched is called "20 Days in Mariupol," but remember that the siege of Mariupol lasted 86 days, and the invasion is still ongoing, and it is not over yet there. The destruction and deaths you saw during these 20 days also happen every day in Ukraine. Other cities, people, but they suffer just as much." When you remind people of that, they're like, “Oh, sure! How can we help?" There is an immediate desire to do something. For me, observing this desire in the audience was the most important thing because people asked what they could do for Ukrainians, for the people of Mariupol right now.

What do you think happened in the city in the next days of the siege?

— They destroyed the city completely. Everything. Then we did some important research. The day after we left, we regretted leaving.

The Russians bombed the drama theater in Mariupol precisely because there were no journalists there.

No one could figure out how many people died, what happened to those injured, and what happened to those who escaped. This was not the only incident. Several more large bomb shelters were simply bombed: the “Neptune” swimming pool, one large school... our investigation came out about a month ago, and we looked at what they (russian occupational authorities — ed.) had reconstructed —  those were two or four buildings, and they demolished two hundred of them. The same thing happened with Popasna, with Soledar — these are cities that no one can return to, these are lost cities. It is important for the Russians to show the reconstruction. That is, they take a part of the city just so that it is a picture, for example.

I hope that Ukraine will liberate Mariupol, liberate the entire Donbas, and it will be rebuilt, and Mariupol will recover. I have an idea to make the next film about Mariupol, but already about returning there, so we'll see.

I don't know about Mariupol, but destroyed villages or smaller towns, such as Volnovakha or Saltivka in Kharkiv, are probably painful to return to live in. In your opinion, when Ukraine wins, what will happen to those towns?

— My dear Saltivka... I am not an architect, and I cannot say. I understand that about 80% of Mariupol cannot be reconstructed, but everything can be rebuilt.

I was in five wars, and I realized that people are fantastic creatures; they come back to life very quickly.

Ukrainians are also like that: look how Bucha quickly came back to life. You just need to give people the opportunity to return, and they will rebuild, and everything will be fine.

Is the documentary journalist mostly an outside observer? Was there a time when you would leave the camera and start helping?

— This moment is even shown in the film when the camera is working, and we help with conversations or with the evacuation of the wounded. If a person needs it, we help if there is no one around who can provide this competent help. It's okay to drop your camera and help. We continue filming if there is a competent doctor or rescuer nearby. This is not journalistic ethics; this is human ethics, empathy. No one cancels deep feelings; the camera does not protect against shock, pain. On the contrary, it intensifies all this because you see these pictures again and again, every detail.

None of the Ukrainians is psychologically recovering now, unfortunately. My heart stays there, even if I'm going to present a film at Sundance. Every minute I watch the news, call someone, and ask questions. Some of the friends died, some were injured, this is a normal human reaction. Now is not the time to rest, not the time to heal your psyche, someday and somewhere, we will find that time.

Despite the fact that there are horrors in the footage, can one see aesthetics in this? What is the power of professional editing and audiovisual work in the film? Can your film be called beautiful?

— If this can be done, then It means I have failed at my job. This film is not supposed to be beautiful or aesthetic. When we talk about human horror, about human tragedies, they should be treated with respect; the body of a person who died should be treated with respect, but not with aesthetics. It is important not to confuse respect for people suffering or dead with aesthetics. On the contrary, we tried to make the film in such a way that there was absolutely no aesthetics, and it was impossible to find beauty. It is important and painful, somewhat poetic, but from a philosophical perspective it is not beautiful because war is terrible; it cannot be beautiful.

If a cinematographer or photographer films war beautifully, unfortunately, then they help people to accept war as normality, which is a crime.

The film lasts 90 minutes, however, we describe 20 days. It requires the work of an editor, a director to convey how it happened. It is the editing, some music and sounds that help the viewer immerse themselves in horror to see elements of hope, but everything that is done in the film is so that the viewer finds themselves next to the people there, in Mariupol. So that they do not perceive this film as a game. The big challenge of modern documentaries is that the cameras shoot so well, and the production in documentaries is so strong that many documentaries lose their documentary feel. This is bad, especially if this movie is about war.

Feature films about the war look bogus in comparison to what we see in Ukraine in real life. Is a feature film about the Russian-Ukrainian war possible now?

— It is possible and necessary. There are many examples when feature films provide the necessary context or simply throw the viewer into what we call emotional experience, the opportunity to immerse themselves in the events as if the viewer was not just a spectator, but almost a participant in the events. Documentaries can't tell everything; they can skip people's stories because they're dead or because they don't want to talk about them.

The documentary does not exclude feature films; they are two different mediums that complement each other.

Feature cinema asks questions that documentary cannot ask: things, feelings that can be changed for artistic effect in historical facts; the live-action openly tells what exactly changes in it and why.

An example of how feature film can tell more and not harm the real story is the series "Chornobyl" (a drama television miniseries, produced by an American pay television network l HBO in cooperation with a British broadcaster and telecommunications company Sky — ed.), which was released in 2019. It adds context, humanity to the stories that happened during the disaster, but after the series came out, there was also a podcast with the writers of the series, where they talked about what exactly they changed and why they did it. The writers openly talk about the changes in facts or characters and tell the viewer what caused them.

How do foreign journalists talk about the war in Ukraine, and what is the view of the war of the documentarian who is inside the story, that is, when one films the fighting in their native country?

— There are various international journalists; their professionalism is high enough to shoot important stories in the country where they were not born. Sometimes it even helps them highlight things that foreign audiences don't know. Ukrainian journalists, of course, look at this war differently because it happens in their home country, it causes a lot of emotions, and we talk about everything up close: about what is happening to our neighbors, to our families. The stories of Ukrainian journalists are always more emotional. However, internationals always manage to add context. It was like that when I filmed in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan... If you are there for a while, you begin to understand what exactly the conflict is, and why it happens; you get to know the language, and the people, then sooner or later, you manage to tell the world what it needs to know. When you're at home, and you see bodies near the house where you lived, spent ten or twenty years of your life, or you see the house where the girl who was your first love lived, and it's completely burned down, you perceive and film it differently.

How do you use the artistic language of the author as a documentarian, given that you also create literature?

— I have two important theses. Literature and video are two completely different languages, like communicating in Ukrainian and English. There are topics, thoughts that can be told only through literature, and topics, videos, or photos that can be shown exclusively in cinema. I remember I had a teacher, one of the few I had, who never gave us the task of filming something; he would say: "Write me a story! Here is the first shot of the story. Write it." That is, it is still a story, and in order to shoot well, you need to read a lot.

I am writing a book about Mariupol. It will not be fiction. The book complements the film but has a different perspective. This is what happens in the cultural space — all mediums are connected: video is connected to photography, photography is connected to text, and text is connected to installation, and it all works together. Nine years of the Russian-Ukrainian war.

How did Ukrainian and foreign audiences and their perception of reality change through documentary evidence?

— In some sense, especially for Ukrainians (and this is awful!), the war has become, to some extent, normality, a kind of reality with which we have been living for nine years. By the way, this also sometimes prevents us from seeing and telling stories; we perceive the war as something normal, but in reality, it is not normal because war is a catastrophe. In any case, we see, the world sees it too, that the war helped build Ukrainian identity. Perhaps it is not ideal when identity or unity is built on tragedies. Not just the war, but also the Revolution of Dignity, the annexation of Crimea, Russia's invasion of Donbas and now, at the time of a full-scale invasion — all these steps are for building unity and forming a whole generation of people who understand that the fate of their country depends on them.

This is unique to the whole world. There are not many countries where people believe that they can make a difference in their lives and their country.

How does the documentary react to the change? Don’t ordinary everyday scenes get diminished in the journalist's perception after difficult wartime filming?

— There are many interesting stories in the world, so many more important topics that can be filmed and told without war. I hope that the time will come when we, Ukrainian journalists, will stop being war journalists, and I will also stop being one and shoot something else. Cheetahs running in the savanna as an example. I want to go back to Greenland and talk about climate change and what we can do about it. So many topics! Let it all end... During this year, we have received several important international awards for our work in Mariupol, but every time I go on stage and receive an award, I emphasize that any Ukrainian journalist, and I, and all of us, would give away these awards to ensure that this never happens.

You can see the works of Mstyslav Chernov on his website and the author's Instagram page.


Translated by Kateryna Kazimirova and Anna Petelina 


Short profile

Mstyslav Chernov is a military correspondent, director, videographer, photographer, photojournalist, and writer, known for his coverage of the Revolution of Dignity; Russia's war against Ukraine; wars in Iraq, Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Afghanistan; as well as his art installations and exhibitions. Chernov is an Associated Press journalist, president of the Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers, laureate of the 2023 Sundance festival in the "Audience awards" category, winner of the 2023 Royal Television Society British Media award.