’20 Days in Mariupol’ wins best documentary Oscar, a first for AP and PBS’ ‘Frontline’

Mstyslav Chernov accepts the award for best documentary feature film for "20 Days in Mariupol" during the Oscars on Sunday, March 10, 2024, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Mstyslav Chernov accepts the award for best documentary feature film for “20 Days in Mariupol” during the Oscars on Sunday, March 10, 2024, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Mstyslav Chernov’s “20 Days in Mariupol,” a harrowing first-person account of the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, won the best documentary Oscar on Sunday night.

A joint production of The Associated Press and PBS’ “Frontline,” the Oscar — and nomination — was a first for both Chernov, an AP video journalist, and the 178-year-old news organization. This was the third nomination and first win for “Frontline.”

Chernov, photographer Evgeniy Maloletka and producer Vasilisa Stepanenko arrived an hour before Russia began bombing the port city. Two weeks later, they were the last journalists working for an international outlet in the city, sending crucial dispatches to the outside world showing civilian casualties of all ages, the digging of mass graves, the bombing of a maternity hospital and the sheer extent of the devastation.

“This is the first Oscar in Ukrainian history, and I’m honored,” an emotional Chernov said. “Probably I will be the first director on this stage to say I wish I’d never made this film, I wish to be able to exchange this to Russia never attacking Ukraine.”

He called on Russia to cease aggression in Ukraine. “I wish for them to release all the hostages, all the soldiers who are protecting their land, all the civilians who are in their jails,” he said.

“We can make sure that the history record is set straight and the truth will prevail, and that the people of Mariupol, and those who have given their lives, will never be forgotten. Because cinema forms memories and memories form history.”

Chernov ended his speech by switching to his native language, uttering his nation’s salute, “Slava Ukraini,” which means “Glory to Ukraine.”

Statuettes were awarded to Chernov, producer and editor Michelle Mizner and producer Raney Aronson-Rath; AP Vice President Derl McCrudden is also a credited producer on the film and was among those onstage to accept the award.

While reporting on the invasion, Chernov encountered quite a few different reactions to the team’s presence on the ground. Some thanked the journalists for doing their jobs. Some called them prostitutes. Some doctors urged them to film graphic scenes of injured and dead children to show the world what had been done.

Only about 40 minutes of footage made it out to the world in real time because of poor connections, but when Chernov and his colleagues were finally able to leave, he decided he needed to do something with the 30-some hours they had on tape. Chernov, who was born in Ukraine, narrated the documentary as well.

The work of Chernov, Maloletka, Stepanenko and Lori Hinnant won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for public service and featured prominently that same year in a Pulitzer for breaking news photography.

“20 Days in Mariupol” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won an audience award. It went on to claim best documentary from the Directors Guild and BAFTA and was considered a favorite for the Academy Award going into the night. It won the prize over a strong slate of documentary features, including “Four Daughters,”“The Eternal Memory,” “Bobi Wine: The People’s President” and “To Kill a Tiger.” Last year, “Navalny,” about the Russian opposition leader who died just last month, won best documentary.

And while the awards run for “Mariupol” has come to a close, each new prize and platform has provided a stark reminder that, more than two years, later the war is still ongoing. On the same day Chernov learned he was nominated for an Oscar, he learned that his hometown of Kharkiv had just been subject to a deadly bombing by Russian forces.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in late February that 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in action since Russia launched its full-scale invasion.

“The Last Repair Shop” won for best documentary short. The film, co-directed by Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers, profiles the craftspeople who fix thousands of musical instruments used by Los Angeles schoolchildren. “Music education isn’t just about creating incredible musicians, it’s about creating incredible humans,” said Bowers.

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For more on the 2024 Oscars, visit https://apnews.com/hub/academy-awards. For more AP coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war, visit https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine.

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