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An Interview with Michelle Mizner

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Congratulations to the “20 Days in Mariupol” team and DC/DOX Alums for taking home the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature this year, marking the first Oscar in Ukrainian history. Director Mstyslav Chernov perfectly captured the tension in his acceptance speech when he claimed, “I will be the first director on this stage who will say I wish I had never made this film.” Sky Sitney, DC/DOX co-founder and festival director, was honored to connect with Michelle Mizner, producer and editor on the film, to discuss the impact of the awards on their project, and much more.

 

Could you tell us about your role in the film and your collaboration with director Mstyslav Chernov?

In the days following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, I was wrapping up another edit for FRONTLINE and watching the news with the same shock as many around the world. Our editor-in-chief and executive producer, Raney Aronson-Rath, met with Mstyslav Chernov and the Associated Press to discuss the possibility of making a film with the footage he’d gathered while reporting in Mariupol. This was just about a day after he and fellow journalists, Evgeniy Maloletka and Vasilisa Stepanenko, had escaped the city. Raney asked me to speak with him next. I’m on staff at FRONTLINE as a producer and editor, and like taking on projects where the filmmaker is connected to the story and/or the footage was not initially shot with the intention of making a film. I’m so grateful to Raney for bringing me on, and for her producing partnership. The next day, Mstyslav and I had the first of what would be many long conversations about what he shot and his ideas. It was clear that he had such promise and vision as a director. Over the next six months, we developed the story and worked toward a cut to submit to Sundance. 

 

During Chernov’s film shooting, there was, and perhaps still is, an information blockade and limited internet service out of Ukraine, making it nearly impossible to disseminate information, let alone export hours of footage. How did you navigate this process, both logistically and in terms of physical and digital security?

Cutting off access to the internet and information is a deliberate tactic of war which Russia has used in Ukraine. Despite this, as shown in the film, Mstyslav worked tirelessly over the weeks they were in Mariupol to send out his footage. From a physical and digital security standpoint, he was relying on years of experience as a conflict journalist and had support from an institution like the Associated Press where he’s on staff. It is remarkable how well-crafted his dispatches were, especially when considering the pressure he was under. His natural talent as well as years of practice and hard-earned skills came to the fore in Mariupol, where he met the moment with everything he had. We worked to keep and translate that passion and conviction into the film. Once the footage was out of the city, he copied it onto a separate hard drive and it was hand carried through to London, coordinated by one of our fellow producers from the AP, Derl McCrudden, who was essential in the making of the film and overseeing the work and security of the team reporting in Ukraine. Then, it came to GBH in Boston, where FRONTLINE is produced. 

 

As an editor, you regularly confronted devastating, harrowing material in the making of this film. How did you navigate this process, both to mitigate your own trauma from witnessing these events and the urgency to get these stories out into the world?

Difficult footage and stories have been part of my work for many years, and I’m sure a lot of documentary filmmakers can relate. For me, a few things have helped. FRONTLINE staff has participated in a couple of training sessions with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, where I have learned techniques like muting certain sounds and images to limit overexposure. I am lucky to have access to a therapist, and really wish that was a more ubiquitous part of healthcare for everyone. And when in the middle of an intense edit, I try not to neglect my hobbies or things that bring me joy. But I will admit, it happens, especially when we are getting down to the wire. Having some flexibility around hours and where I work has made all the difference. And when you are working in person, taking care of yourself and each other. Bringing coffee, going on walks, paying attention. Being good to your collaborators.

 

What impact have you seen or do you hope to see as a result of the Academy Award?

I hope the people of Mariupol and what happened to them is never forgotten. I hope war, anywhere and everywhere is happening, is understood and seen for what it truly is, and that we continue to see the civilian toll of war up close. Witnessing this is literally the least we can do. I hope we see more stories told from the perspective of journalists and filmmakers from the communities that are involved in the conflict. Resourced organizations can offer support and tools to lift up those voices and experiences. And as a consequence, the world will discover more talented, skilled filmmakers, like Mstyslav – who I know will now go on to make many more films, though I desperately hope they are not all as tragic as 20 Days.

 

What surprised you most about your experience at the Academy Awards and/or in the lead-up to the event during your awards campaign?

FRONTLINE has had a number of films follow a festival and theatrical path in the last several years. It’s a newer strategy for the series which Raney has pioneered. But this is the first time I’ve had the pleasure of being part in a very hands-on way, and so the experience was new and full of surprises for me. I loved being in community with audiences at screenings, and at festivals like DC/DOX, where we can share and discuss the work we all do. We had incredible partners in PBS Distribution, Dogwoof, and our roll out teams. I was encouraged to see documentaries from around the world nominated by the Academy Documentary Branch, and honored that 20 Days was among them. And I wholeheartedly agree with something Cinema Eye recently said: that the breadth and depth of the great documentary films made this year could never be fully captured within only five slots. I know this because I saw so many of them – powerful, courageous, gorgeously crafted films. I was inspired and honored to have been on the journey alongside these teams this year, and those relationships are what I’ll actually cherish the most from this whole awards experience.

 

Thank you, Michelle!

 

People take shelter in a youth theater in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 6, 2022. From 20 Days in Mariupol Photo credit: Mstyslav Chernov

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