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The Oscar which Ukraine wished it never won

The Ukrainian film 20 Days in Mariupol recently won an Oscar for its vivid depiction of Russia’s aggression against the city. Set in the early weeks of the invasion, the documentary gives insight into the struggles and brutality faced by Ukrainians to this very day. Indeed, for many the film is still too difficult to watch.

March 27, 2024 - Kateryna Pryshchepa - Books and Reviews

A promotional poster for 20 Days in Mariupol from PBS Distribution.

On March 10th the documentary feature film 20 Days in Mariupol shot and directed by the Ukrainian videographer Mstyslav Chernov won the Oscar prize for best feature documentary film. A joint production of the Associated Press and PBS Frontline, 20 Days in Mariupol documents the first 20 days of Russia’s 86-day siege of the city and the destruction and death it has brought to its residents. In February and March 2022, Chernov and his colleagues, the photographer Evgeniy Maloletka and producer Vasilisa Stepanenko working for the Associated Press, became the most long-term media crew working in Mariupol under siege by the Russian army. Earlier this year, the film had already won a BAFTA for best documentary, and the Directors’ Guild of America Award for outstanding directorial achievement in a documentary for 2023.

In his acceptance speech, Chernov said he is probably the first director who wished he had never made his film, thus underlining the tragedy it has documented live for us to see. I wish to be able to exchange this for Russia never attacking Ukraine, never occupying our cities. And this is the feeling shared in Ukraine.

On the morning of February 24th 2022, when the crew arrived there, Mariupol looked normal. In the first moments of the film, we see that the city lights were on, Ukrainian flags were decorating the streets and cars were moving along in an orderly manner. In fact, there seemed to be no traffic that day in the city unlike in Kyiv, where residents who owned cars rushed to leave the city and take their families to safety from the first hour of the invasion. Some people went to work in the morning that day before they realized what had happened. And then an hour after the crew had arrived in the city, the Russian attack began. The one-and-a-half-hour film is based on the footage taken in the city, with only some short additions of footage that was being aired on TV at the same time that the crew was in besieged Mariupol.

The crew had documented the ways the local civilians had been trying to survive in the besieged city, the cases of banditry alongside the sacrifice and bravery of the civilians and the servicemen and women in the city. They also documented the work of the local emergency services and doctors and the first mass graves dug just outside the city, which were filled with bodies collected from the city streets.

But the scenes shot in the two city hospitals had proven to be the core material for the film. The journalists had documented the work of the medics trying to save wounded civilians with few medical supplies, alongside the horror and grief of the parents losing their children to the wounds caused by air strikes. The civilians expressed futile hopes that the video shot in the city, if spread in the media, would stop the Russian invasion.

The crew had filmed the direct aftermath of the Russian airstrike on Maternity Hospital No. 3 in Mariupol, which took place on March 9th 2022. That video, as many others before and after that, managed to get to the international media but unfortunately did not impact the course of the war.

The film includes many episodes that can break your heart just by seeing the absurdity of the war. In the footage taken directly after the airstrike on the maternity hospital, there is a segment where a boy aged around ten had become separated from his mother in the panic caused by the bomb explosion. He is being comforted by a young soldier or at least a young man in a uniform and a helmet, who looks like he could be of school age himself.

In search of the victims of the airstrike, the crew went to the city’s Emergency Hospital No. 2, where they subsequently documented yet another Russian war crime. It was from that hospital window that the crew shot the video of a Russian tank firing at a residential block. The tank episode included a moment of surrealism. Seconds before the tank, which had been momentarily stopped in its progress by the wrecks of two buses partially blocking the street, begins to shoot, one can see a small dog wearing a winter coat walking from under one of the buses just in front of the tank and disappearing behind the bus again. There were no civilians seen in this segment and there is no way to tell if the dog’s owner was still alive when the animal walked up to the tank. There is also no way to tell how many people from those we see in the film did survive.

Having been dispatching their photos and footage to the outside world directly from besieged Mariupol, the crew soon realized that they had become a target for the Russians. They had first been rescued from behind enemy lines by a Ukrainian army unit sent specifically for that purpose and later evacuated from the city by a local police official. Thus, they had been able not only to survive the siege but also save the documentary evidence of Russian criminal aggression against the city, which subsequently became the 20 Days in Mariupol film.

Not every journalist trying to document the Russian aggression was as lucky as the 20 Days in Mariupol crew. Lithuanian film director Mantas Kvedaravičius, who in 2016 directed documentary Mariupolis, came back to the city in February 2022 to document the Russian full scale invasion. He was captured by the Russian soldiers and killed on March 30 2022. The film Mariupolis 2 based on the footage taken by Kvedaravičius was released in November 2022.More than two years after the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the tragedy of Mariupol is ongoing. Just on March 8th this year Russian occupation authorities announced the discovery of 30 bodies under the rubble of the city’s communication provider’s headquarters, known as “Budynok Zviazku”. Over the last two years, the Russian occupying administration had been regularly producing propaganda materials of the city returning to normality. The Russian propaganda videos, however, only became indirect evidence of the Russian state policy of population replacement as a result of sponsored migration from Russian regions. Some Russian “digital content creators” even had a trend of going to the city in search of “original” locations for their short videos.

In his commentary about the film for the BBC, Chernov was speaking about finding the fine balance between being respectful towards the victims filmed by the crew and avoiding sanitizing the footage too much. The footage taken by the film crew in Mariupol in February and March 2022 did not stop the Russian aggression, so now the crew is working so that its victims are not forgotten and the truth about the city is told.

Still, for many Ukrainians, both those who had and had not experienced the direct Russian shelling and missile strikes, watching the film equals reliving the first days of the Russian invasion. Back then, the visuals from Mariupol sent by Chernov and Maloletka made prime time on all TV networks of repute. So, seeing the film just directly brings back the memories of every day of those first weeks of the invasion. And many have been saying they do not dare to watch it still. They do not feel strong enough to do that.

“I cannot change history. I cannot change the past… But we all together, you – some of the most talented people in the world – can make sure the history record is set straight and the truth will prevail and the people of Mariupol and those who have lost their lives will never be forgotten,” said Chernov in his Oscar acceptance speech. This is the reason behind the film and the reason it should be seen by as many people as possible.

It was with this in mind that Ukrainians fought for the 20 Days in Mariupol award presence in the edited version of the 2024 Oscars ceremony, which Disney initially plan for. The edited version distributed to global broadcaster internationally on March 11 did not feature the award given to the documentaries, which lead to international backlash. On March 14 it was announced that The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would recut the edited version of Oscars to include the documentary’s win and the acceptance speech by Mstyslav Chernov.

Kateryna Pryshchepa is a Ukrainian journalist and a contributing editor with New Eastern Europe.

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