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A new documentary recounts the first 20 days of the Russian attack on Mariupol.
Mstyslav Chernov: If people see only light version of the events, they tend to accept war.
Brooke Gladstone: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. The path to justice for war crimes is long and often fruitless but a shift in US policy announced this week removed a roadblock for a team investigating the alleged kidnapping of Ukrainian children by Russia.
Nathaniel Raymond: It is a landmark moment. Having the metadata able to be shared with International Criminal Court is a victory for justice.
Brooke Gladstone: Plus the case to prosecute Putin for initiating the conflict.
Philippe Sands: For the Nuremberg Tribunal, the crime of aggression was the crime of crimes because all the other crimes followed, and that, of course, is exactly the situation today.
Brooke Gladstone: It's all coming up after this. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone and sitting next to me this week is Deb Amos. If you've heard a report from the Middle East on NPR over the last four decades, there's a good chance you've heard Deb. She's a longtime foreign correspondent and a journalism professor and a residence at Princeton University. Hello, Deb.
Deb Amos: Hello, Brooke. You start.
Brooke Gladstone: This week we begin with Russia's ongoing assault on Ukraine.
Male Speaker: The fighting is continuing at a grueling pace along the 900-mile-long frontline in Eastern and Southern Ukraine.
Male Speaker: The city of Odesa has been struck by missiles or drones nearly every day since Russia left a key multi-nation grain deal last week.
Female Speaker: Fighting has intensified in southeastern Ukraine and it comes as Key continues its counteroffensive against Russian forces.
Deb Amos: Putin's invasion is now more than 500 days old but on Wednesday this week, there was some breaking news about the International Criminal Court.
Female Speaker: Extremely significant, actually a historic shift. Now, the US is saying that they are going to provide, the ICC, the International Criminal Court with the evidence that the US has obtained of Russian war crimes as part of the ICCs investigation into that in Ukraine.
Deb Amos: That's a big deal because traditionally the US has not cooperated at all with the ICC but as the war grinds on, so does the amassing of evidence in all forms, hard data, homemade videos, satellite images, tweets, and eyewitness accounts, and even a staggeringly explicit profoundly moving documentary.
Brooke Gladstone: In February of 2022, Mstyslav Chernov, a video journalist for the Associated Press decided to go to Mariupol, the critical port city on Ukraine's Southeastern Edge, just 35 miles from the Russian border. He arrived an hour before the first bombs hit the city. What Chernov chronicled over the next three weeks is captured in the new documentary, 20 Days in Mariupol. He was there as a reporter but only a small fraction of his footage made it to the outside world but when it did, the impact was great.
Female Speaker: AP reporters on the ground showed the world a mass grave in Mariupol.
Female Speaker: I'm talking about narrow trenches in Mariupol with babies' bodies. AP journalist
Male Speaker: [crosstalk] so many face, who wins the information world?
Male Speaker: The one [unintelligible 00:04:41].
Female Speaker: Do you two really believe this? Do you truly believe what you are saying?
Brooke Gladstone: At every moment we get to see what he sees and a warning that's pretty disturbing.
Mstyslav Chernov: We immediately started to hear explosions on the outskirts. There were flashes of light. You could see from the window it was still dark. The battle was largely happening on the outskirts of the city, military bases, and the trenches that were built there for years. For a while, it was calm. There was no panic. Some people went to work. It was quite surreal because I had a feeling that something horrible is coming, judging by just how Russia deals with cities that it tries to attack how it was with Grozny, how it was with Aleppo. People kept asking me, what's going to happen? What shall we do?
Brooke Gladstone: Early in the film, you meet a panicked woman crying, where shall I go? What shall I do? To calm her down, you tell her to go into her basement, they won't shell civilian areas and of course they do. Later you see her at a shelter and she reminds you of your not-so-great advice and you say, I'm sorry.
Mstyslav Chernov: I feel like I am telling the story of the community that I'm part of and sometimes it is hard for me to decide what's best to keep filming or just to try to help. That's a core thought which I wanted to come through my narration that I am not a decent reader. At the same time, I didn't want to impose my emotions on the audience.
Brooke Gladstone: But in describing their trauma, you're also describing your own. It's evident in your simple words of description but behind it, so much weariness, a dull ache.
Mstyslav Chernov: That is something that probably all Ukrainian journalists feel and how probably all conflict journalists feel.
Brooke Gladstone: One of the most horrendous moments includes the aftermath of a maternity hospital bombing. Incredibly hard to watch. One very pregnant, very injured woman is carried out on a stretcher. We don't know her fate but then at a second hospital, you find the doctor who treated her. She said that her pelvis had been shattered by the explosion and that the mother and baby died.
Male Speaker 8: Her name was Irina. They said she screamed, kill me when they brought her. She knew her child was dead.
Brooke Gladstone: So many dead in the war and in your film we see nurses getting sniped at, so many dead babies, the kind of thing that a news consumer in America would never see on television. What do you think about American morays when it comes to war violence?
Mstyslav Chernov: It is crucially important for the war coverage not to be sanitized in any way because if people see only, let's say, light version of the events, they tend to accept war and it's just unacceptable. We didn't sanitize anything when we were editing. I remember when Russia shut down MH17 airplane over at Donbas nine years ago.
Brooke Gladstone: The Malaysian airliner.
Mstyslav Chernov: Yes, the Malaysian Airlines. I was one of the first journalists has arrived at the scene, filmed these hundreds of bodies scattered across the fields and melted plastic with human bones. It was horrifying. Most of those images never made it to screens because it was really too difficult. I think if we would be filming this now, we could show much more. The limits to what international outlets are showing to their viewers have changed. There's just too many war crimes, too much pain happening. It's just impossible to ignore it.
Brooke Gladstone: And you're not worried about numbness or empathy fatigue in viewers?
Mstyslav Chernov: It's important to find balance. You cannot just bombard the audience with blood and tears and expect people to care all the time. It needs context to show how people react and how they feel.
Brooke Gladstone: Speaking of reaction, there were a few moments in the film where you hear people expressing disdain for you and the crew being there and then we saw a lot of people feeling quite the opposite.
Mstyslav Chernov: For most of the people, it was a chance to just send a message to their relatives. People would just come up to us on the street and ask to film them. Then they would just ask us, is Ukraine still exist as a country? How is Kyiv doing? How is Kharkiv, Odesa? Is Ukraine's army resisting? Other people came and said, please keep filming. I think this also gives us a good understanding of how not just a physical military siege works on psychology of people. It's also an information siege that destroys the society.
Brooke Gladstone: Which brings to mind that when Global TV used some of your footage, Russian officials were confronted with what was in those tapes and they specifically labeled the footage you were able to get out from, say, the bombing at the maternity ward or the mass graves as propaganda.
Mstyslav Chernov: They said we are information terrorists and that we staged everything. I think it's a part of the story because the story is not only what happens on the ground, it's the ripples of the information that is going across the planet, influencing people.
Brooke Gladstone: There's a moment in the film that might have not worked at all because you leave the present moment and you offer a montage of the terrible trials of the Ukrainian people in recent history.
Mstyslav Chernov: I think about all this country has been through over the past eight years. All that I filmed, revolution of dignity, Crimea's annexation, Russia's invasion of Donbas.
Brooke Gladstone: The acrid smell of violence-
Mstyslav Chernov: MH17.
Brooke Gladstone: -seems to waft off the screen.
Mstyslav Chernov: Donetsk airports siege.
Brooke Gladstone: Variations on a theme.
Mstyslav Chernov: War that seems endless. We keep filming and things stay the same. Worse even, propaganda turns everything upside down.
Brooke Gladstone: That interlude offered some really essential context.
Mstyslav Chernov: It is coming after very hard moments, heartbreaking moments. I felt like we all needed time to just sit down and reflect and prepare for what's coming next.
Brooke Gladstone: You've mentioned elsewhere that the footage was not taken to be a film. It was simply news dispatches.
Mstyslav Chernov: Further the siege went, more we realized that we were the only ones who were sending anything from the city, any information, any footage, more I knew that I need to capture every minute. There are so many stories I was just told about, or I got firsthand but was not able to film because I was hiding, I was afraid, and that is a regret too. Probably I just need to write those stories. I guess that's the only way to tell them.
Brooke Gladstone: You need to tell them all?
Mstyslav Chernov: They're so important somehow to be told. There's a story of a woman who is sitting in a corridor after we witnessed the birth of a child in a hospital and before we find out that we are surrounded.
Brooke Gladstone: They aren't sure whether the child is alive and they keep smacking it and rubbing it. Then suddenly this triumphant wail.
Mstyslav Chernov: The doctors told me that the birth is just like a ray of light from heaven for them. We walk back to the entrance of the hospital and I meet a woman who tells the story of her children that were killed by a shell in their basement and I have footage of those children. It's not in a film, we thought it would be just too much. Later on, we found her and we know that they buried their children in the yard of their house. Then they left the city through the green corridor and they came back to rebury the children.
They didn't find them in a place where they were supposed to be. They went through these hundreds of bodies that were just piled up near the hospital to try to find the bodies of their children. They did just before they were dropped in the mass grave to be lost forever and they gave them a proper burial.
Brooke Gladstone: I'm wondering about the policeman who helped you for a while, Vladimir, who asked to make a statement in front of the camera.
Vladimir: The Russian troops commit war crimes. Our family, our women, our children need help. Our people need help from international society. Please help Mariupol.
Brooke Gladstone: I think every war reporter, maybe every reporter faces this question eventually and they have to find an answer. Do you really believe you can make a difference?
Mstyslav Chernov: I faced that question exactly in 2014 while filming the MH17 and I thought the war is going to stop when the world sees this footage and it of course didn't. It just got worse. I don't have a lot of illusions about direct power of journalism. We are soldiers, we can't change the course of events. All we can do is just to keep telling everyone about them. There is something that was done. Some families found their loved ones because they saw them in the photos and in the videos and they were able to locate them in the city and extract them and save their lives.
Authorities have used what we filmed to negotiate the green corridor which also saved lives. This is immediate direct effect that we can do. Whether we have an impact in the long term, I don't know. I guess we will see much later when we look back. Again, even if it just remains in history, even if the film remains as an evidence of what happened in the first days of full-scale invasion, that's already a lot because we judge the world around us by watching news and reading headlines through our screens. We understand our past through cinema, through documentary films, feature films, books. That's where these films are important for generations that are to come.
Brooke Gladstone: What do you want viewers to take away from this?
Mstyslav Chernov: I definitely want viewers to take away hope and they do.
Brooke Gladstone: Viewers take away hope from this film?
Mstyslav Chernov: Despite so much desperation, hope is coming through because people see how Ukrainians resist, how they survive. That desperation does not give us strength to keep going. Hope does.
Brooke Gladstone: What do you think is the most hopeful moment in your film?
Mstyslav Chernov: The birth of a child. After what we've seen, after all the children that have died, knowing that this is just a tiny fraction of what happened, seeing that a child was born and it's healthy and now we know this child survived, that is the most crucial moment for me in the film and the most hopeful one.
Brooke Gladstone: Thank you so much.
Mstyslav Chernov: Thank you to you.
Brooke Gladstone: Mstyslav Chernov is a journalist and director of the 2023 documentary, 20 Days in Mariupol. He's also a novelist. His latest is called The Dream Time.
Deb Amos: Coming up, how to investigate war crimes in real-time.
Brooke Gladstone: This is On The Media.