Published on: 23 November 2023 in Events

TRANSCRIPT — In Conversation: Mstyslav Chernov and Waad Al-Kateab on 20 Days in Mariupol

Reading time: 26 minutes and 41 seconds

As part of our In Conversation season, Pulitzer Prize-winning Ukrainian video journalist Mstyslav Chernov joined us to discuss the making of his first feature film 20 Days in Mariupol.

In discussion with fellow director Waad Al-Kateab, Mstyslav explored the role directors play in telling the stories of our time and how he shaped a narrative from the events of the war in Ukraine.

Here, you can read a transcript of their conversation, recorded at our In Conversation member event in November 2023. 

Directors UK Events team: If I can ask you to welcome Mstyslav Chernov and Waad Al-Kateab onto the stage to discuss 20 Days in Mariupol

Waad Al-Kateab: Hello, everyone, thank you for being here. I mean, we’ll speak a lot about the film, but I think nothing can be stronger or powerful than what you've seen already. My name is Waad Al-Kateab. I’m a Syrian filmmaker. My first film, For Sama, was talking about Syria and what happened there, and it’s my honour to be here and to meet you [Mstyslav] in-person and to have this conversation because I think it’s not just about what happened in the past because this is still happening today in Syria, today in Ukraine and in other places around the world, Palestine and Israel. So, it’s a lot about how we can move forward and what we can do as well to make our lives better, other people’s lives better as well. I know maybe you [Mstyslav] disagree with some of this, so we were talking about, “why did you make the film and what do you want this film to do as well?”  

Mstyslav Chernov: Thanks for being here. We didn’t disagree.  

Waad Al-Kateab: We just came from another event, and we had a conversation.  

Mstyslav Chernov: Yes, we had an intensive conversation.  

Waad Al-Kateab: You’re from a journalism background and we had a bit of, like, “is it our responsibility to be as activist, to take, like, stand on something?” You were, like, talking from a different place, which I totally understand and respect as well, so yes.  

Mstyslav Chernov: I try to take more of an Associated Press (AP), international journalism perspective, and I think that’s good. Coming from a journalistic background, actually working for AP, working as a video-journalist for AP and photographer and writer taught me something very important. In AP, when you do a story, when you do a video-story, you are restrained by very straight editorial limits. All the instruments you have is a sequence of shots and a couple of short interviews and you don’t have a voiceover and you rarely have text. So, it’s like a spartan way to tell a story, when you have only a sequence of images and that’s it. So, that taught me a lot, and also it taught me, unfortunately, that every story, however hard and dramatic and important it is, however historically important it is, for the general public, it will disappear tomorrow, nothing remains in the media space for a long time, and only way to preserve that is to preserve a story, to preserve a tragedy or a happy moment, is to make a film about it, I guess. So, even making a film is already a statement. It’s not an activism statement. When we were doing a film, that was quite important for me and also for the editors from the front-line, which you also worked with, editors from the front-line and for AP, for the narration, for example, not to be judgmental or too emotional, not to point fingers, just to give an audience enough context to understand a story better and to make their own judgements about it. So, I guess context is a lot already, especially in times of misinformation and misinterpretation because trust is everything. As soon as you become an activist, you lose trust. You lose a voice of truth. You give a possibility to someone who wants to undermine your work to say, “hey, you know, you’re activists, you're not journalists.” That’s the problem.  

Waad Al-Kateab: I disagree here very much because I think, like, no, for me, when you are an activist and your work, where you stand and where you've been, every shot and everything you do is a statement, whether you’re saying something or not, and that's, for me, I define myself as an activist and then filmmaker, and the choice of what I do is part of this. I think this is a really amazing conversation because so many people here had opinions and I think I would love to hear that as well but it’s about, like, why we’re doing this, and I really want to ask you, why did you do 20 Days in Mariupol

Mstyslav Chernov: So, look, VR, they are complex, which are very complex, historically complex and politically complex, which consists of many layers for many years. There are conflicts when things are more or less clear, I don’t want to generalise but in the majority of cases, things are clear. We have an attacker and a victim, for example, when you speak about Ukrainian war, about Russia’s attack on Ukraine, you clear see thousands of civilians dying, thousands of Ukrainian civilians dying, and none of the Russians. So, you, kind of, see a perspective, where is the aggressor, where is the victim? Again, I don’t want to say victim because I don’t want to victimise anyone, survivor or person who is being attacked, and it’s not activism at all to focus on the stories of civilians because that’s our actual duty as journalists or the commentators, filmmakers, to focus on their lives and suffering. I could easily spend 20 days or more in Mariupol with the military, I had access, but we decided to focus on civilians and it doesn’t matter already whether Ukrainian or not, so focusing on this and being an activist in a way that you want to tell their stories and want to say out loud, who is the attacker, who is the victim. It is quite..., well, it’s necessary because if you start saying, “oh well, you know, let’s listen to this murderer, what he has to say.” Well, he keeps killing someone, you want to listen? You know, you need stop first and then put him on a trial, and then you listen. So, right, if you focus on civilians, not a country, then I think that’s the way to go.  

Waad Al-Kateab: What can you tell us about the team, and who was there? Like, in terms of the location and what you had to go through, I can’t say it even as a “location”.  

Mstyslav Chernov: Yes, I understand. Again, I operate as news, my mind is very much news-oriented still, not anymore, not that much but at that point, it was and the standard team for a conflict within the agency, like AP, would be a photographer, a videographer and a producer, and preferably also a writer but then again, if you have many, 4 people is a bit of a dangerous edge. It’s a bit too much. 3 people is exactly enough but overall, with these 9 years of conflict I’ve been through, teams are shrinking. Sometimes you operate alone. That’s the reality. Anyway, so the compact camera, the compact everything, you know, one single mic, and the team where each one does their own job very well and we know what we’re doing. A photographer does photos and videos, the producer speaks to people, tries to connect with them afterwards or before or tries to arrange, you know, where you would live, what to eat, what to do, helps to edit sometimes, at that point know what good producers do.  

Waad Al-Kateab: What we understood from watching the film is, like, when you were there, you had no idea that this would turn into a documentary, as a film in this way. 

Mstyslav Chernov: Very dramatic.  

Waad Al-Kateab: When you think about it today, after you’ve seen how this material has been used, I mean, first, wide around the world, with all this news, and then, today, as a film, what do you think of this?  

Mstyslav Chernov: So, initially, I haven’t seen much, how it was used because it was used when we were there, so it was used almost immediately, not the same day because, again, you couldn’t send everything at the same day, or if you even were able, if I was even able to send, then you wouldn’t publish it immediately for security reasons. Then, you know, Russians could just pinpoint where you are, but that’s a separate conversation.  

If you watch carefully, the film, you can even see how the editing changes. So, the first 7 days, more or less, they’re shot more like news sequences, with very few connections between them. You know, when I walk into a scene, as a news cameraman, I already edit in my head. I know what I need to do. It’s very different from documentary perspective because, in documentary, you kind of think ahead of the events, trying to think ahead of the events and set up before and give it time to play out. It's just a different approach but by the time, when the maternity hospital was bombed, I knew, at that moment, that, “this story is much bigger, and it needs to be told in a longer form”, but it was just a thought in the back of my head. I was really only concerned about how much battery was left, how many cards I had. My microphone was falling apart, so I Scotch-taped it, and that was what I was concerned with.  

You can see how the editing changes through the film, and I thought, “if it’s ever going to be a documentary, I need a protagonist, of course, or someone to carry through,” and I looked at Vladimir, who was, like, with us and I thought, “My God, he’s such a boring character,” yes, I think from this dramatic perspective, a character arc. In fact, in the chaos that is happening around you, having a character which doesn’t change, who is just square, like a milestone, it’s actually a good thing. Then, only when we left, I connected with the front-line, AP has a long-standing collaboration with the front-line, and we started editing. It's another story.  

Waad Al-Kateab: When, like, they said, “we would love to do a film,” what was the first thought you had? How did this come as to be 20 days, why is it 20 days specifically?  

Mstyslav Chernov: Yes, they told me, “watch For Sama,” and I did. Also, as I just told you, I also watched everything I could find on the Siege of Sarajevo, was 30 years ago but a lot of my colleagues, who are working now in AP and beyond AP, have been telling me those stories and that’s, like, a different generation which went through that war. So, I referred to that and then I started already speaking to the editor, Michelle Mizner, she’s an amazing editor. She works with the front-line all the time and she told me, “Hey, Mstyslav,” so I am filing because I needed to send her hard-drive and they had to file everything, transcribe, she said, “give me a few references for the films, you know, just visual language, what would you like?” Also, she already had some references from my edits, the news edits, which are much shorter but still there is a certain editing style to them, and we started looking for all the survivors that also came out Mariupol at that time, through the marine corridor. We found out that Mantas Kvedaravicius, a Lithuanian filmmaker, was executed on the Russian checkpoint as he was trying to leave from Mariupol and I recorded doctors, some of the families. Then we found a husband of Irina, a pregnant woman on a stretcher, who didn’t make it. I thought, “It’s going to be built in that way.”

I thought, at first, that we’re going to intercut, a classic structure, we’re going to intercut these interviews, you have an interview, and they were very emotional, like, very emotional and strong. There was a lot of guilt there, a lot of stories that were not on the screen, and we would intercut them with the footage of them on the screen and go back and forth but then it just didn’t work. It just didn’t work, so we started searching for another device, a narrative device, and we also decided to limit the perspective to 20 days. I really wanted to include a bombing of a drama theatre, 500 people die, Azovstal siege, all these very important moments, which I haven’t been witness to but basically though, we decided to keep the focus very narrow, on the ground, and I guess that kind of worked.  

Waad Al-Kateab: In the edit, like, how long did it take? You were telling me earlier and I think it's really interesting to share with everyone. How did you do the edits?  

Mstyslav Chernov: Coming from the news perspective, you shoot, you edit, and you have, like, an hour to edit, okay, and then you send. By the September, we started in March, by September, I said, “oh, it’s taking so long,” and Michelle told me, “No, man, it’s very fast, surprisingly fast,” but in September, we had sleeping bags in the editing room. We were trying to make it to Sundance, I guess none of the filmmakers actually sleep in September and their families are going bananas. The first part of the editing, we did over Zoom and she was logging everything and we already spoke about the concept and, you know, had these diaries and we were leaning towards me recording the voiceover but I didn’t want it in the first place but we did it over the Zoom, and it was very hard, obviously, also because I was shooting at that point in my hometown. So, during the day, I would go and shoot and be, like, a nightmarish déjà vu again and again, morning, at 4 o’clock, the rockets are hitting Kharkiv. You go there, you know, all the injured people, you film and again, medics, hospitals, soldiers, and then you go and edit, and at that point, I almost broke down because I kept reliving Mariupol again and again in the editing room.  

Waad Al-Kateab: Yes, and in terms of, like, now the film is out and you’re going, almost every day, somewhere around the world, it's not getting easier as well.  

Mstyslav Chernov: If I’m not in Ukraine, yes. I’d prefer to be there. No hard feelings, I’d prefer to be there because I have a film which I started and I want to finish, and, of course, presenting the film is very important and, you know, making sure that it has an impact, again, an editorial impact, an historical impact. You want people to remember but you can't force anyone to remember, so all that, all those feelings, you know, conflicting.  

Waad Al-Kateab: As a, like, filmmaking process, what was the most challenging part for you? 

Mstyslav Chernov: The filmmaking, yes, survival, okay, for sure, tactical stuff, right, it’s challenging but it impacts you emotionally a bit later, after, in a moment of crisis, you think about shutter speeds, you know. You think, “oh my God, I switch to active stabilisation, why?” Seriously, you think about you’re there and the responsibility is so huge. When the strike on maternity hospital happened, I remember when we ran there, I thought, “oh my God, that's a very impactful moment. It has to be recorded very thoroughly. How do I stop shaking? How do I stop being afraid and just record?” So, that’s a challenge, and then, as a father, it just kills you when you see children dying, and those children you’ve seen in a film, these are not the only children that have died. Some of the moments, I just didn't film because we couldn’t, for various reasons, you know, out of delicacy or out of the dynamic of the scene, it was just, at that point, inappropriate. So, yes, different, I’m thinking about all the moments which were front of view, but you didn’t film them because you forgot to push the button on the GoPro, or you were crawling back under the stairs instead of filming.  

Waad Al-Kateab: No, you did what you had to do and yes, I think it’s still very important and very powerful. I want to open it up to questions, please, yes.  

Directors UK Member: I had a question, leading on from what you just said, about what you chose to show when it came to the edit and how you make those decisions.  

Mstyslav Chernov: I mean, every filmmaker would, I guess, agree with the idea that you film everything you can, and then you decide, right. Unless someone really needs help, and then you just forget about the camera and just run and help. But then in the editing room, especially when you have a larger picture, when it's not just a 2-minute news piece, where you try to put everything because of such an immense responsibility to show what is happening at the moment. When you’re editing the film, that was actually one of the hardest parts, because how do you find the right balance between not sanitising war and making it acceptable for viewers, for the audience. And if you don’t show enough, people will be like, “oh, okay, so, war is not that bad, it’s okay.” But at the same time, if you go completely brutal, people will just shut down. How do you find that balance? And then you have to find it with the right pacing, I guess, giving the audience time to process what they’ve just seen before you move onto a new painful situation. Those decisions where we argued for every centimetre of the crop, whether to show an eye or not show an eye of a person on the gurney. So, these are very, very carefully thought-through decisions. And we were so worried when the film went to the Sundance, and the first screening, I was sitting there and thinking, “are people going to walk out from this screening room?” If that was going to happen. But no, they didn’t.  

Waad Al-Kateab: I had the paper and a pen on my first screening to count, because I was, like, how many people actually leave, no one left, but that’s the feeling really. Because, yes, you always think, like, you lived through this, you’re not sure how other people would see this. And you really want them to stay and see, but at the same time, you know, you're full of so many thoughts and stuff, which is really scary.  

Mstyslav Chernov: I remember when we did send links to press, to various viewers, and there were a lot of comments like, “oh, I had to stop the film in the middle and just come back to it after a day.” But it’s not this experience in a cinema. In a cinema, you’re trapped. And actually, for these films, which are depicting a siege, like yours and mine, this feeling of being trapped is part of it.  

Waad Al-Kateab: Yes, it’s part of the experience.  

Mstyslav Chernov: It’s part of what you want people to feel, at least to try to convey that feeling.  

Directors UK Member #2: Regarding sound design and music, I’m extremely curious how you approached a film like this, because there’s this delicate balance to make sure you don’t go too far into cinematic territory. How did you approach that, using the sound design?  

Mstyslav Chernov: It’s a very good question. We can talk the whole evening about it, I think. So, the first thing that comes to my mind, I see a lot of war films that are shot too well and produced too well to a point where you feel that it’s staged, and that’s not what you want to do. So, when we started editing, we spoke about that a lot, and we decided to search for a visual language which would make this experience as raw as possible. So, all those shots where a camera drops down, all those shots which I would just cut away as I’m, you know, thinking that they’re irrelevant. In fact, I didn’t even remember they existed there, they became relevant. So, that’s the editor actually, she found it, she said, “you have to keep it. That adds a feeling of being unintentional.” And that’s how it was actually, so that’s good that we found that part of the language. But at the same time, here’s the problem, you can’t really drop a big amount of very hard footage on the audience and hope they will figure this out, because they will get tired and it’s not going to be a story. They’re going to walk out confused and maybe angry, maybe they will get to the point eventually, but I think it still has to be a well thought-through journey which you bring people on. So, that brings all the small details of that, the 3-act structure, which again, for this film it, kind of, just edited itself into a 3-act structure. We did not want that to happen, but it just happened somehow, and all we needed to do is to give a visual, kind of, break, a point where you have a first memory sequence and a second memory sequence between acts, so the audience has time to process. 

So, like, a pacing and narrative structure should be there, but it has to be hidden for the audience. It has to be behind the action. Also, the same thing with the music. So, we were looking for a very specific sound, the sound of metal and rust and, like, hollow buildings, skeletons of buildings. The experience I remember I had there at Mariupol as an industrial city, as a huge city which was dying, and actually the composer who worked on the film is more or less specialising on horror films, so that, kind of, worked as an idea. I had to spend, like, 2 weeks studying music theory to explain to him what I wanted. I actually just went to a music course to study music theory to be able to explain to him. But music connects the story. If you watch it without music, it would fall apart. So, that too. And the last thing, which is very curious, we did this whole, I don’t know, we spent a month maybe working in a sound room as well, bringing the experience of the war film to what I’ve experienced. So, you would sit, and the chair would shake under you, or you would have a shell flying from the back to the front exactly how it was. And in the end, nothing made it in the film, there is no fooling. Strict editorial rules, Russia have scrutinised everything we shot and did so much that we didn't want to risk editing something and then them pointing out, “oh, okay, well, in the story that was published a year ago, there is no sound, and in the film, there is this sound, so everything’s fake.”  

Waad Al-Kateab: Yes, they have that.  

Mstyslav Chernov: Yes, there are no explosions on the drone, it’s just the music. So, music is the only thing we could work with, but still okay. I wish I could do both. And the funny story is one day a few months ago, I work in a small café in Kyiv, I just came back, and there is a guy who is editing a film, and I see my footage there. Because you actually buy it from Associated Press. And he edits the film and I’m like, “no, I know that moment.” And I start speaking to him, and he’s like, “oh, man, it’s you, you’re the one who shot it.” He asked me several questions and he said, “I’m making a film about Mariupol.” I said, “well, great, it’s needed. Let’s fill the void.” And he said, “everything’s great, but the sound, you know, we had to work really hard to fix it, add explosions and rocket sounds.” And I was like, “Okay, whatever.”  

Waad Al-Kateab: Any more questions? We have time for very quick ones... yes, please. 

Directors UK Member #3: How do you avoid breaking down when dealing with this death on a daily basis after having seen it and then working with it? In the editing specifically of this documentary, how did you make sure it didn’t affect your personal relationships?  

Mstyslav Chernov: Well, honestly speaking, conflict journalism has affected my marriage way before Mariupol happened. That’s just the way this work works, you make sacrifices. But everything’s good, you know, we all understand each other. And I really miss my daughters, I don’t have much time to see them because everything is so active and unfolding. And you can’t avoid breaking down. I guess accepting that is the first step in the work. At the same time, you have to take care of your mental health because you just can’t adequately tell people’s stories, tell human stories if you are mentally unhealthy. So, if you need to, you have to go through a process of consulting and treatment, if you need to. But when things are unfolding very quickly and when you don't stop, everything’s still okay. It’s when the silence is around, that’s when it hits harder. But, the team helps a lot, the trust within the team, the trust within the family, the trust, you know, between you and editors. And also, just the feeling that you’re doing something meaningful. Look, what’s the most horrible thing about all this tragedy that my country or other countries are going through is that we as humans are trying really hard to make sense of war, and it just doesn’t make sense. And this feeling that your loss of a child, or the loss of your city, your home, was meaningless and will not have probably any justice to it, is so devastating. This question of why Marina is asking when Kiril dies, her son, I think that's the main question of the film.  

So, I at least am, you know, we are at least privileged enough to make our choices, to do what we do, to try to find meaning. I think there’s a branch of psychotherapy which is called logotherapy, literally therapy of meaning. When you have something to live for, when you have a meaning, you can overcome anything. So, finding meaning in this work helps me to get through. But, you know, obviously we all have to go through many years of processing. I saw what happens to people from Mariupol, when they go in the cinema and see the film, and I was so afraid it was going to traumatise them, but it actually didn’t. They relived this experience together as a community in a safe environment with the thoughts that their suffering was not forgotten and that collective experience is beginning of a collective therapy, if such a thing is even possible.  

Waad Al-Kateab: We were just talking about this at the end of our previous conversation, because I was telling him that I think especially when you lose something and, you know, I mean, hopefully it’s not going to be for good, but when you lose something for now and you know you can’t be there anymore, it’s like looking at this and feeling that you’re doing something. It’s like you’re bringing back Mariupol in his case, Allepo in my case, and whatever topic you’re working on. But when you take it back in a way that’s like, it’s existed now, no one can, you know, narrate this in a different way. And, like, this itself, it’s really meaningful, yes.  

Mstyslav Chernov: Here’s a thought I think a lot. In the modern world, it’s much better to be broken than indifferent. So, I think we just have to accept that it’s the way we go through.  

(Image: Christopher Andreou)  

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