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“I Don’t Think I’ve Ever Cried So Much in the Edit”: Editor Michelle Mizner on 20 Days in Mariupol

A man and a woman sit opposite each other wearing ratty but warm clothes. An oil lamp burns between them.20 Days in Mariupol, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

War correspondent Mstyslav Chernov found himself and a team of fellow Ukrainian journalists under siege in the eastern port city of Mariupol, their most valuable weapon against the encroaching Russian forces being the camera they used to document the atrocities of the invasion. The resulting footage became 20 Days in Mariupol, Chernov’s feature debut that chronicles the strife of Ukrainian citizens and the journalists trying to ensure that their story is told.

Editor Michelle Mizner shares with Filmmaker her insights on cutting Mstyslav Chernov footage from the frontline.

See all responses to our annual Sundance editor interviews here.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the editor of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?

Mizner: Just a few days after Mstyslav and the team were able to escape Mariupol, The Associated Press and FRONTLINE began discussing the potential for turning the footage he’d gathered into a film. I was finishing up another edit for FRONTLINE and our Executive Producer Raney Aronson-Rath connected us over email. She had just met Mstyslav over Zoom and wanted me to speak with him, too. I love working with footage that wasn’t necessarily intended to be part of a film, and also with filmmakers who have a personal connection to the story. So I think she thought it might be a good fit, and can’t thank her enough for that opportunity and partnership in making the film. Mstyslav and I connected the next day and ended up talking for a few hours. As I put the puzzle pieces together and better understood what he had just been through, it was all the more remarkable that Mstyslav was ready to start these conversations about making a film. That was the first of many long phone calls, which I hope were also just helpful to him in processing everything. Often, that’s an important part of the job of being an editor and producer—helping a director come to understand and refine their voice and story by bouncing it off someone who cares and will listen. 

Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?

Mizner: Mstyslav is himself a skilled editor and a natural director. From the start, he already had a pretty clear vision for how the film could come together, and it’s very close to what it ultimately became. My goals as an editor were to collaborate and execute on that, develop the overarching narrative with him and, crucially, to bring the perspective of someone who was not on the ground and could see his footage differently. As I logged, I was actually looking for any time you could sense his presence—a reflection, a sigh, a shake of the camera at the sight of something tragic. All these moments you might normally cut out were going to be how viewers would get to know Mstyslav in the film.

Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?

Mizner: Mstyslav is a journalist, but he also has a background as a novelist and doing more experimental video installations. I remember early on when he said he would send me a link to a film he was thinking of as a reference, and it was Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. It’s really exciting and liberating to know you’re working with someone who is ready to push the envelope. It might have been tempting to make this a more conventional film, where we see our protagonists on screen, maybe go back and film interviews with people. But at some point, we decided to leverage the footage we had—it was just so in the moment and incredible. It was enough.

Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?

Mizner: I started making videos in high school and then went to film school. It was there actually, in a documentary class, I first saw Night and Fog—which for me, was also an important reference while making this film. Despite having learned about the Holocaust, there was nothing like seeing those haunting images. It felt relevant to the choices we were making about what people should or shouldn’t see happening right now in Ukraine. I turned to that film a few times while working on 20 Days in Mariupol

Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?

Mizner: Avid Media Composer. It’s what we typically use at FRONTLINE. I have an edit at GBH in Boston, but since Covid, I do most of my work from home via Jump. The ability to work from anywhere also came in handy when, after working on the film for some time with Mstyslav remotely, we had the opportunity to work in person for several weeks in Europe. From there, we made a little pop-up edit and I could remote into my machine and still work with our wonderful post team and AEs in Boston. Being in the same room with Mstyslav spurred all sorts of creativity and progress. 

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?

Mizner: There are moments in the film that are so painful. Absolutely crushing. And the experience of cutting them could feel the same. When you work for a series like FRONTLINE, you are frequently dealing with subject matter that is heavy, but I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much in the edit as I did on this one. It’s a testament to how severe and relentless the attacks on the people were, as well as to the way Mstyslav filmed them: sensitively, but also unflinchingly. That’s how we tried to cut the film. And while my experience is nowhere near the same as anyone who was there, it is important to be mindful of what you’re watching over and over in post. FRONTLINE has done some training with the Dart Center around this topic, which has been helpful.

Filmmaker: Finally, now that the process is over, what new meanings has the film taken on for you? What did you discover in the footage that you might not have seen initially, and how does your final understanding of the film differ from the understanding that you began with? 

Mizner: It is somewhat counterintuitive, but something we benefited from was that so much of Mstyslav’s footage had already been published. Not just because its impact became part of the narrative in the film, but also because we didn’t need to worry that we were sitting on important, newsworthy documentation of potential war crimes for the sake of making a feature. It was already out there. However, so far, this coverage of the siege of Mariupol has existed in smaller packages, absorbed, and experienced by the world bits at a time. The impact of seeing the beginning days of the invasion strung together, and through the experience of a journalist who is Ukrainian himself, brings a different understanding of what happened to civilians in Mariupol: an invasion so brutal and relentless it took thousands of lives and changed the shape of a city in only a matter of weeks.

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