Documentary Highlights Ukraine War

The United Nations Association of New York held a screening of Mstyslav Chernov’s “20 Days in Mariupol” on 11 June, followed by a discussion with Sergiy Kyslytsya, permanent representative of Ukraine to the U.N., and Edith M. Lederer, renowned war correspondent and chief correspondent at the U.N. for the Associated Press.

Mstyslav Chernov’s “20 Days in Mariupol” is shockingly raw, providing an uncensored look into Russia’s siege of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol in 2022.

On 11 June, the United Nations Association of New York partnered with the Ukrainian Institute of America for ascreening of the Pulitzer Prize- and Academy Award-winning documentary. The screening was followed by a discussion and Q. and A. with Sergiy Kyslytsya, permanent representative of Ukraine to the U.N., and Edith M. Lederer, renowned war correspondent and chief correspondent at the U.N. for the Associated Press.

Audience members sat in neat rows on the second floor of the institute’s Fifth Avenue mansion, but conversations and smiles came to a grim halt when the documentary began to roll.

Mr. Chernov, an AP journalist, and his team traveled from their home city of Kharkiv to Mariupol on 24 February 2022, knowing the coastal city, home to Ukraine’s heavy industry, would soon become a front line in Russia’s invasion. Soon after he arrived there, he witnessed the war’s beginning.  

“Someone once told me wars don’t start with explosions; they start with silence,” he narrated near the start of the film. 

His filmmaking breaks the siege down day by day, bearing witness to the escalation of a conflict that would result in the deaths of 25,000 people in Mariupol alone. 

Mr. Chernov’s camera captures the grief of parents learning their child could not be saved, the persistent fear of imminent death, the brutal reality of the mass graves dug by Ukrainians who could not give their dead proper burials amid shelling, the destruction of civilian housing and infrastructure, and the loss of the most innocent.

Throughout the documentary, Mr. Chernov and his team frequently risk their lives to find a signal so they can send footage to their editors at AP. This footage became essential in capturing the horrors of the war and making those horrors known to the world.

At one moment in the film, a soldier asks Mr. Chernov to stop recording and, with his camera pointed to the ground, he reminds the soldier that this war is historic, and “to not document it is impossible.”

The discussion after the film took a dive into the inner workings of the United Nations, particularly the Security Council, and its intended function during times of war.

“The main underlying principle of the United Nations is the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of all 193 member nations,” said Ms. Lederer, “and basically, what Russia did on February 24th, 2022, was a violation of the U.N. Charter because it invaded Ukraine, violating its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The conversation turned to a Ukraine peace summit to be held in Geneva this weekend, 15-16 June, that will welcome almost 90 countries and organizations.

“We expect a very strong outcome, a very precise outcome,” said Ambassador Kyslytsya.

Edith M. Lederer, renowned war correspondent and chief correspondent at the U.N. for the Associated Press, left, and Sergiy Kyslytsya, permanent representative of Ukraine to the U.N., discuss the U.N. and the war on Ukraine after a screening of “20 Days in Mariupol” at the Ukrainian Institute of America, 11 June. (photo: Olivia Poust)

The summit will concentrate on three points of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s 10-point peace plan, which he proposed in November 2022: “nuclear safety, safety of maritime traffic … and the humanitarian aspects, namely the civilians and prisoners of war.”

One of the “humanitarian aspects” expected to be highlighted during the summit is food security. Ukraine, as Ms. Lederer reminded the audience, is known as the breadbasket of Europe because of its grain exports. Since the war, exports have been severely hindered, and there have been multiple efforts to get grain out of Ukraine.

From July 2022 through July 2023, the Black Sea Initiative helped the country export millions of tons of grain. Now, an alternative corridor in the Mediterranean, via Romania and Bulgaria, is doing the same. The ambassador said last month Ukraine successfully reached pre-war levels of grain and food shipments. 

Despite this victory, the “interrupted chain of supply,” as well as the mining of much of Ukraine’s agricultural land, are global concerns.

The restrictions on grain exports have affected countries in CNEWA’s world, including Lebanon, which was already experiencing an economic crisis and depended on Ukraine for more than 70 percent of its grain, the ambassador said.

The discussion, framed by the documentary, was a reminder that Ukrainians are still suffering through this war, and that the consequences of the conflict will be great, both in and out of Ukraine.

“Every day in Ukraine, more families face the devastation captured in this documentary,” said Lydia Zaininger, executive director of the Ukrainian Institute. “Don’t let the images just fade away, but please use them. Let them stay in your mind’s eye.”

Learn about CNEWA’s response to the war here

Olivia Poust is assistant editor of ONE.

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