A journalist wearing a helmet and a jacket labeled 'PRESS' walking through a fog-covered, devastated landscape filled with discarded tires, broken wood, and debris. A bare, prominent tree stands amidst the mist, and remnants of a fence can be seen in the background.

‘FRONTLINE’ executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath speaks on the creation, impact of award-winning film, ‘20 Days in Mariupol’

February 27, 2024 Alyssa Beno Leave a Comment

Last November, PBS and PBS Wisconsin audiences witnessed the broadcast premiere of 20 Days in Mariupol, a visceral, first-person view of the beginning of the war in Ukraine in February 2022, told through the perspective of filmmaker and Ukrainian Associated Press video journalist Mstyslav Chernov.

The film – a collaboration between FRONTLINE and the Associated Press (AP) – follows Chernov as he and his Ukrainian AP colleagues remain trapped in the besieged city of Mariupol, struggling to continue their work documenting atrocities of the Russian invasion. After nearly a decade covering international conflicts, including the Russia-Ukraine war for the AP, 20 Days in Mariupol is Chernov’s first feature film.

Chernov and his colleagues, photographer Evgeniy Maloletka and field producer Vasilisa Stepanenko, were the last international reporters to remain in Mariupol as Russian troops attacked the city. Together, the 2023 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists documented what would become defining images of the war: dying children, mass graves, the bombing of a maternity hospital and more.

Since its January 2023 premiere at the Sundance Film Festival (where it received the festival’s World Cinema Documentary Competition Audience Award), the film has received numerous accolades, including a 2024 EE BAFTA Film Award in the Best Documentary category, two Critics Choice Documentary Awards and a 2024 Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary, among others.

FRONTLINE: 20 Days in Mariupol is available to stream on the free PBS App and online at pbswisconsin.org.

Ahead of the 2024 Academy Award ceremony on Sunday, March 10, 2024, PBS Wisconsin spoke with FRONTLINE’s editor-in-chief and executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath, a University of Wisconsin-Madison alumna, about the film and its global reception. Aronson-Roth is also a producer of 20 Days in Mariupol.

PBS Wisconsin: How did FRONTLINE become involved in the creation of this documentary?

Raney Aronson-Rath: FRONTLINE has a strong collaboration with the AP, and it all began with us doing journalism with the AP about alleged war crimes in Ukraine right at the start of the war. As we were starting that other film, the story in Mariupol started to break, and we started to see these really quite remarkable stories, very alarming stories coming out of Mariupol and especially the maternity ward scenes that were coming out in the news.

It was right at that time that the AP called us to tell us that they had a team that had been able to gather a lot in the number of days that they had been there and asked if we want to talk to the videographer, who was Mstyslav Chernov.

It worked very quickly after that. As soon as we could talk to him – as soon as he was out of Mariupol – it became really clear to us right at the beginning that he was already thinking about making a film about what happened in Mariupol.

We started to get to know him, and very quickly we moved forward on a documentary. It was a very organic process. We actually decided to do it with Mstyslav in-house at FRONTLINE, which is very unusual, but that’s what we did. We brought it inside, and Mstyslav worked with our producer and editor Michelle Mizner and myself and our colleague Derl McCrudden at the AP, and that’s how we started to work together.

PBS Wisconsin: How did your team approach sifting through the many hours of footage that you received from Mstyslav?

Aronson-Rath: He had been filming a lot during those days that he was in Mariupol; he was filming a lot more than just the news that he received.

What Michelle (Mizner) really did was look for those unique moments that help you understand what was happening, not really in a news way but more in a cinematic, storytelling way. Those are the moments, when a young baby has a terrible thing happen where the camera gets put down, those are the moments she was looking for in the edit and she found them, and then together it was how we tell this story in an intimate way really depends on having that documentary footage.

A lot of times it’s not easy to take news and news environment footage and make a documentary, but what was different here is that there was a lot of news in what he was doing, but there were also these really telling emotional and important moments that were more documentary style moments, like you could be in the moment. That’s why it is a documentary in that sense. News has its own purpose, but the documentary depth comes from really being there and filming at length.

PBS Wisconsin: What stood out to me watching 20 Days in Mariupol was the documentary aspects of it that you just spoke to, but also seeing the news clips in the way we remember seeing them on television two years ago, and then on top of that, the disinformation campaign that was also happening around the AP reports coming out of Mariupol.

Aronson-Rath: We definitely wanted to give people a sense of: They were under siege in Mariupol but they were getting the word out. We wanted to give you a sense of the inside-outside part of the film, and that is why it is so dynamic. If you didn’t have those stories publishing as they were desperately trying to send stuff out into the world, you wouldn’t know the reality of the impact of the work they were doing, and that especially intersected with the disinformation campaign about their work. That was, probably for me as well, one of the most meaningful parts of the film was understanding what happened with their reporting around the Mariupol maternity ward.

You can see disinformation in action, and you can say the purpose of journalism is very clarifying in that moment because what they filmed is an actual record of what happened, so no one can take that away from us. That’s why I keep thinking about the importance of that, because I firmly believe, with so much disinformation and misinformation around us, we really do need reporters actually on the ground filming themselves. For me it had a larger purpose even than that one moment in Mariupol.

PBS Wisconsin: 20 Days in Mariupol recently won a British Academy Film Award (BAFTA) and has received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary. How do you sort through the feelings around this kind of recognition?

Aronson-Rath: The thing that I always try to center is the purpose of the work that we do at FRONTLINE and the AP. The more people who see the work we do, the more meaningful and impactful the journalism will have in the world. This is a record of what happened in Mariupol. The more people see that authentic story and the boots-on-the-ground element of the journalism, the more they’ll understand what’s really going on in the world.

In a sense, the way that we feel is conflicted obviously. But, we also feel like this is how more people will see it – if more attention is being given to it. It’s really kind of like that. We did have a big PBS broadcast and we have streaming. It’s really inspiring to see how many people are watching this online and streaming it.

It’s a very difficult film to watch, but so many people are watching it because I think there’s a hunger for what is actually happening in Ukraine. People really do want to know, and the way that Mstyslav told it resonates with people. It doesn’t matter if you’re Ukrainian, you watch it and it’s relatable.

PBS Wisconsin: There’s another subtler conflict within the film, too, when you have doctors and others encouraging the AP journalists to film and then in other scenes, people are ridiculing the filmmakers for doing just that.

Aronson-Rath: We decided to keep the complexity of being a journalist on the ground in the film because that actually is the truth of it. When you’re creating a film while you’re in a war zone situation, or any situation for that matter, you usually do have those kinds of responses, but this one was incredibly visceral. We were asking, “Should we keep it? Should we not?” Then Mstyslav was like, “That’s the experience that I have had. I need people to know that this is conflicted for everyone.”

But, that’s what also makes it a story you can relate to. You can relate to the doctors saying, “Please, show this to the world.” You can also relate to the woman who is saying, “Why are you filming? Stop!” It’s interesting to say there’s humanity in all the responses.

At FRONTLINE, we try to really respect the audience in the sense of, if you look at any of our work it’s always complicated, it always has some nuance complication in it because that’s actually just the reality and we assume that our audience, which we think is true, they’re actually just hungry for something authentic that they can relate to and they usually do relate to that kind of complexity.

PBS Wisconsin: Did the experience of creating 20 Days in Mariupol change your perspective on anything with your work?

Aronson-Rath: This really opened my eyes to the world of reporters who work for the AP and other big news organizations around the world that a lot of the people who are collecting the daily news – conflict reporting on the ground – there’s a way to think about their work with a lens that’s more documentary because they’re the ones who are filming and telling stories that we all share.

Here’s a great example: The AP reaches 50% of the world via their news, their news is published in all of the different news organizations regardless of the partisan belief or whatever of the news organization. Everybody uses the AP’s content so it’s the shared reality of the world through this work.

It helped me to see the world differently, this news ecosystem as it were, these people who are on the ground filming and writing are critically important people to the future of understanding the difference between truth and disinformation. It has helped me see the world differently. These people on the frontlines filming news day in and day out, they’re the ones who are documenting facts and reality.

PBS Wisconsin: Is there anything that you’d like to say about the film or your work with FRONTLINE?

Aronson-Rath: One thing that’s been really gratifying for me is that the support behind this film from public media has been enormous. This has been truly a public media film because I had the support from PBS, from WGBH (the PBS member station that produces FRONTLINE) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and I had the support from PBS Distribution.

We kept this inside the public media family, and that was really important to me because I want our work to be acknowledged as public media. We are part of the larger ecosystem for good, and for factual, nonpartisan, objective filmmaking and journalism, and to the fact that everybody came in behind this film and helped me get the word out is very gratifying. It’s been very inspiring to me. It gives me hope for the future of the work that we all want to do.

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