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Graphic documentary tells the story of Russian invasion of Ukraine

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Posted at 6:35 AM, Feb 21, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-21 08:35:53-05

GREAT FALLS — As the war between Russia and Ukraine nears the two-year mark, the United States Congress continues to debate an aid package to the region.

A courageous journalist is doing his part to tell the story of atrocities resulting from the conflict.

“20 Days in Mariupol” provides a graphic look into the first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

As part of an Associated Press team of Ukranian journalists, the only International reporters in the city, director Mstyslav Chernov set out to tell the story.

Mariupol is a large, strategic industrial city in southern Ukraine on the shore of the Azov Sea, between Russia and Crimea, occupied by Russia in 2014.

The veteran Associated Press reporter and his team knew the situation was serious but had no idea how violent it would become.

“When I understood that, I just knew that more needs to be done except news. This is a symbolic, huge story,” said Chernov. “And if I thought if I make it out alive with the footage which I have, I have to do more than just news.”

Through daily reports and personal footage, Chernov and his team captured some of the most unforgettable images of the war ranging from mass graves to dying children, even the bombing of a maternity hospital.

“This is one of the reasons why I had so much energy. We all had so much energy to even do our work, not to just sit in a basement and hide from bombs,” said Chernov.

Chernov said while he met some resistance from locals who didn’t want to be on camera, most people were willing to tell their story.

“It is so important for people to just to be heard. The more they're trapped, the more they're vulnerable, the more there's danger to their life. They need more than just this feeling that they're not ignored, they're not forgotten,” said Chernov. “And when they saw the camera, that's what they I think wanted. They wanted to express that. Well, if no one helps, at least can we be heard?”

Mariupol stood for 86 days. Chernov says its story represents all of Ukraine which he says is a humanitarian issue and not just a political topic.

Chernov has covered war zones in his home country as well as Iraq, Syria, Gaza and Afghanistan. As a family man he could easily relate to the citizens of Mariupol.

“I am a father and my daughter was seven months old when Mariupol was happening, and I was afraid that I'm never going to see them again,” said Chernov. “The theme of parenthood, the theme of devastating impact of the war on families, on civilian population, is the main theme of the film.”

As a Ukrainian, Chernov admits it was tough to separate his emotions from his job as a journalist. He says he provided enough context for the audience to draw their own conclusions.

“And in a time when misinformation and propaganda is so strong and everything gets distorted, I think that context, additional context which we've seen in the film with, but we didn't see in the news, is so crucially important,” said Chernov.

Chernov’s dangerous mission also dealt with claims of “fake news”, something he wasn’t surprised by. But he says he’s sad the people of Mariupol have to deal with those accusations.

“They were not only attacked, not only lost everything, but they are also told that this is all fake. I feel really sorry when I hear that,” said Chernov. “That's what drives me when I try to make sure that ‘20 Days in Mariupol’ is seen by as many people as possible because I owe this to people of Mariupol.”

While the film depicts some looting in the aftermath of the siege, Chernov says it also illustrates Ukrainians coming together.

“People were so supportive to each other and to us, and the real community has formed and everyone bonded like a family,” said Chernov. “I think that's why people who survived, survived.”

“20 Days in Mariupol” is scheduled to air on Frontline on PBS on February 22nd, check your local listings. There will also be a screening of the film on February 29th at the Myrna Loyin Helena.