Oscar Nomination For '20 Days In Mariupol,' Ap's First, Comes As Bombs Fall On Filmmaker's Hometown

FILE - A Ukrainian serviceman guards his position in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 12, 2022. The image is part of the documentary "20 Days in Mariupol." (AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov, File)
FILE - A Ukrainian serviceman guards his position in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 12, 2022. The image is part of the documentary "20 Days in Mariupol." (AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov, File)
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NEW YORK (AP) — “20 Days in Mariupol,” Mstyslav Chernov’s harrowing chronicle of the besieged Ukrainian city and the international journalists who remained there after Russia's invasion, has been nominated for best documentary at the Academy Awards, handing The Associated Press its first Oscar nomination in the 178-year-old news organization’s history.

The film, a co-production between the AP and PBS’ “Frontline,” was shot during the first three weeks of the war in Ukraine, in early 2022. Chernov, a Ukrainian journalist and filmmaker, arrived in Mariupol one hour before Russia began bombarding the port city. With him were photographer Evgeniy Maloletka and field producer Vasilisa Stepanenko.

The images and stories they captured — the death of a 4-year-old girl, freshly dug mass graves, the bombing of a maternity hospital — unflinchingly documented the grim, relentless realities of the unfolding siege.

“It is a bittersweet feeling because we know this film represents a huge tragedy for humanity, for Ukrainians it's a huge loss of lives," Chernov said in an interview. "All we can do is try to make sure this tragedy is not going to be forgotten. Every single nomination, every single prize, every single recognition for this film means that we are able to tell this story to more people, to make sure it's not going to be forgotten."

Chernov spoke Tuesday after arriving in Paris for a screening of “20 Days in Mariupol.” On the same day where he could celebrate the film's Oscar nomination, he learned that his hometown of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine had been bombed earlier in the day by Russian forces. The missile attacks killed six people and injured 57, including eight children, the United Nations said. The bombings also damaged about 30 residential buildings.

That news weighed heavily on Chernov.

“My hometown got bombarded,” he said. “I keep seeing the images of what's in the film and what is happening right now in Ukraine — not only in Kharkiv but also Kyiv and other cities — and they are the same images. The same things are happening over and over.”

“Every day, a city somewhere in Ukraine suffers a fate that is very similar to what happened to Mariupol,” added Chernov. "Throughout the two years this film has journeyed, it became a symbol of more than just Mariupol. It became a symbol of every Ukrainian city that got destroyed and wiped out by Russian bombs."

More than 10,000 civilians have been killed and nearly 20,000 injured since Russia’s full-scale invasion began, the U.N. said.

The work of Chernov, Maloletka, Stepanenko and Lori Hinnant last year won the Pulitzer Prize for public service and featured prominently in a Pulitzer for breaking news photography. Since the Sundance Film Festival premiere of “20 Days in Mariupol” a year ago, Chernov’s film — now available to watch for free in North America on YouTube,PBS and other streaming services — has been hailed as one of the most important nonfiction films of the year. It’s also been nominated by the BAFTAs, the Producers Guild and the Directors Guild for best documentary, and the Academy also shortlisted it for best international film.

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine is nearing the two-year mark. Fighting through the winter is mired along a 1,500-kilometer (930-mile) front line. In recent months, Russian aerial attacks have sharply increased civilian casualties.

The war in Ukraine and other conflicts, including the war between Israel and Hamas, have been particularly dangerous for journalists. In December, the International Federation of Journalists said 94 journalists were killed around the world in 2023 and almost 400 were imprisoned.

In “20 Days in Mariupol,” Chernov, Maloletka and Stepanenko are challenged not just by the artillery shells falling around them but by the Russian blockade of the city. Water, food supplies and, critically, the internet were cut from Mariupol days into the invasion. The journalists had to search for places to file their dispatches from, sending minutes of their hours of footage.

“Despite extremely challenging and deeply personal circumstances, AP’s Mariupol team offered the world an essential window into the Russia-Ukraine war as it was beginning to unfold,” AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Julie Pace said in a statement. “That the academy has chosen to recognize ‘20 Days in Mariupol’ is a testament to the power of eyewitness journalism and the bravery of the journalists on the ground.”

The other nominees for documentary feature are: “Four Daughters,” “Bobi Wine: The People’s President,” “The Eternal Memory” and “To Kill a Tiger.”

As documentary filmmaking has proliferated in recent years, news organizations have played prominent roles in Oscar-nominated documentaries. Last year, CNN Films won its first Oscar for the Alexei Navalny documentary “Navalny.” In 2022, the New York Times took its first Academy Award for the documentary short “The Queen of Basketball.” Last year, four New Yorker shorts received four Oscar nominations.

The 96th Oscars are on March 10.

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