20 Days in Mariupol

To discuss what it takes to edit an Oscar-winning documentary, producer/editor Michelle Mizner explains her approach to storytelling with verite footage, maintaining journalistic truth in the context of the edit, and organizing and using metadata for chronological integrity.

Today on Art of the Cut, we’re talking with producer and editor Michelle Mizner about the film “20 Days in Mariupol.” It won the Sundance Audience Award, a DGA Award, a BAFTA Award, and the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Michelle was also nominated for an ACE Eddie and won a BFE Award for her editing work on the film. 

Michelle is a Sundance and Emmy award-winning documentary film editor and producer who is on staff at Frontline PBS. Her other editing work includes Putin’s Attack on Ukraine: Documenting War Crimes, The Plot to Overturn the Election, Inside Yemen, and The Last Generation.

The voiceover has a very low key, sedate kind of delivery. Does that tone affect the pacing or didn’t you have that to work with at the beginning?

There’s actually a backstory to the voiceover that I think will answer your question. When [director] Mstyslav [Chernov] and I began working together on making a film out of the material that he had gathered and reported while he was in the city of Mariupol, we had long Zooms and long phone calls where he would talk about what he had filmed - what he was thinking as he filmed it.

He would wrestle with questions he wanted to ask as a part of this effort of making a full-length film that touched on some of the larger existential questions related to the work he does and what the real consequences of it are, and of the feeling of the futility of it.

That voice got into my head and became inextricable from the material that we were seeing on screen. So from my vantage point - from as an editor logging this really devastating, harrowing footage - having his voice there, feeling his presence behind the camera, knowing who the author was, who was pointing and creating the frame, that did impact my experience of the footage and I felt that it would impact the audience’s experience of the footage.

So the decision to have him be the voice came after a lot of conversations. He didn’t want to make the story about him - about hero journalists. He really wanted it to be focused on the people of Mariupol. What we tried to do was find a way where he could establish that presence and that thread in the narrative, but also not overtake the story and make it too much about him.\

So we worked a while to find that voice, as you can hear in the film. If you hear him -  both in the film and also if you hear him speak elsewhere - he has a great voice. He tells stories really well, so it seemed like a natural way to tell the story: with his voice.

Did you have all the material before you started editing or were you editing as you went?

When Mstyslav and the team - Vasilisa Stepanenko and Evgeniy Maloletka, the AP journalists that were on the ground in Mariupol - all three of them, left the city, Mstyslav had a hard drive of footage of somewhere between 30 and 40 hours that he had filmed while he was there.

He had only been able to publish around 30-40 minutes of that while he was in the city, because of the information blockade and being really hard to access an internet signal, he was only able to send out small clips. But he had this drive and he wanted to do more with it, so the film ends there. 

Time in Mariupol ends on day 20 of the full scale invasion of Ukraine. Frontline PBS - where I’m on staff - started talking to Mstyslav and the AP about making a film on day 22. Raney Aronson, who runs FRONTLINE, spoke to him first and asked me to work on the project, and was a close partner.

So as we began talking with him, this hard drive of footage started making its way to Boston where I’m based and where Frontline is based and our team of assistant editors [Christine Giordino, Alex Lagore, Timothy Meagher] and team at WGBH is. We set up the project: ingesting, got a translator team together, got translations going.

So the project was being pulled together in Avid at the same time that Mstyslav and I were starting to talk about his ideas and vision for the film. So while I didn’t have all of the raw footage in house when we started having these conversations, it was on its way and it was being ingested.

So we had a lot of conversations once I did have the raw footage and I was logging and I was able to watch every single minute and would have discussions with him about what he was thinking for the film and also what he was remembering from that period of time and the way that we approached gathering what would ultimately become his voice in the film or would at least inspire and inform what he ultimately wrote as the narration - based on a lot of these conversations that I would record. I would ask him questions and he would reply.

He also was writing - in a Google Doc diary style - day-by-day what he remembered and what he was thinking on those days. He has also written a novel ([The Dreamtime: A Novel].(https://www.amazon.com/Dreamtime-Novel-Mstyslav-Chernov/dp/1644699885)

He sent me a PDF of it, which, at that point was an unpublished English translation of his novel. So I was also reading that and getting a sense of his voice. All of those pieces came together to create what was the foundation of what would be his voice in the story once we were together in person to edit. That’s where the writing really started for him. 

The film was made in six months. We edited remotely for probably - April, May, June, July - for four months, then for the remaining time, we were able to meet together in person. We had gotten to an assembly cut at that point and then we really took it scene by scene and he would both comment on the cuts but also we would talk about what he could be saying in that moment and sort of develop that voice.

He would record on his iPhone - He had a Zoom mic attachment - and we would talk about it, write, and he would record. I’d bring those into the project, lay them into the sequence. It was sort of like working on an album track by track. It was a really wonderful process. 

The film is in three act and we made it to the end of the second act and I had to come back to Boston and we took a bit of a break - just a couple of days - and we shared the cut with some of our team and our executive producer and a producer on the project, Raney Aronson at Frontline, and Derl McCrudden, another producer from the AP.

Everyone was feeling really good about where it was going, so then I went back and we edited again in person for several more weeks to get to the point where we could submit a full cut to Sundance at the end of September.

Michelle Mizner, editor/producer (photo credit: Jeff Vespa)

It sounds like you were editing those individual verite moments - the days -  without the benefit of any voiceover. What was guiding your pacing of those scenes or decisions about what you were actually seeing if you weren’t hearing his narration?

I did start plotting out what his narration might be pretty early on. We did have him record some lines - both lines that he had written in the diary-style writing or he had written a story from his other published works. We would just try to put together what would potentially work in this film. 

The film is largely in Russian and Ukrainian. Russian is largely spoken in Mariupol, as it is in much of Eastern Ukraine. There were a lot of translations and captions on the screen and we use SubCap for that workflow. I also would use SubCaps for his ideas of his narration.

We were always trying to think of a way to tell the story that had a through-line and a thread. So it was pretty early on that we started using this idea of him being the voice of it, and that informed the structure and the pacing.

I also tried to preserve what I felt like he had intended when he shot the footage and did the initial edits - when he would dispatch small sequences that would go out as a part of the AP wire. So if you think about what Mstyslav’s work is, it’s incredible.

He is in the field filming. He ingests his footage into Final Cut - that’s what he works on - and quickly turns around edits and files them day by day by day. He’s really good at getting coverage of a scene in real time and thinking about what the edit will be.

So I tried to listen to how he was shooting it and preserve what he intended. It could not have been edited in the same way if it wasn’t him who was telling the story and the author of the film. It was really important that he was someone who is from the community that he was documenting, not only because it gave him a lot of access. He wouldn’t have had the access he had if he didn’t know these doctors.

They knew him, they knew the team. That’s why they’re asking him, “Come in! Film this! The world needs to see!” In addition to access, he’s someone who is in a position to say, “Look at our suffering” in a way that in other cases might feel voyeuristic or problematic because he was being invited and because he was the one composing the shots and was doing so with a lot of sensitivity, but also unflinchingly. We tried to keep that in the edit.

Director Mstyslav Chernov (photo credit: Jeff Vespa)

For those who don’t understand your use of the term SubCaps in Avid, can you explain what the SubCaps are? Text on the screen?

We had a really great workflow for our translations. We had a team of translators who used a web-based service to watch the video and then write the captions - the translations - and they were even able to set in and out for the time code. Then our Assistant Editors would generate a text file that included those in and outs and ingest that into Avid and it would create a SubCap sequence. SubCaps are essentially text on screen. I also tend to use it instead of title tool.

Many people do, sadly…

It’s a much more user-friendly experience. Subcap is what we use and we have a track that’s our SubCaps for our translations.

Talk to me a little bit about pacing the film, especially, it’s very interesting to know that you didn’t originally have his voice. What was guiding you to let the film breathe? You’ve got people talking on camera, you’ve got the voiceover, but then there’s also, sound and just sitting with a shot.

One of the things that we discovered in the edit was all of these moments in his footage where he didn’t turn the camera off and he is either dropping it and reacting to something really tragic that he just witnessed and we just witnessed with him.

Or he is being confronted by soldiers and they ask him to stop filming and he insists that he has to keep filming and this is a historical war, we have to document it. I remember getting those, - that translation in - and just being floored how meaningful that moment was. It wasn’t an intended moment to film. It wasn’t a moment that was filmed as though it was going to be used.

There were a lot of these moments in the footage, so I think part of my role in editing it was finding those and thinking about how they could help pace out and create a sense that you were there with him.

It also created moments for him to have a goal that you’re understanding him pursuing. So that soldier moment, for instance, he is a journalist in pursuit of a goal. He wants to document this war and you have resistance, you have opposition, and the soldiers are saying “stop filming.” Or there’s one instance where people run up to him as he’s holding a camera and wearing press gear and a woman is yelling at the camera saying, “they looted our house, what is this?”

And he says, “what is your name?” And she says, “I don’t have a name.” And then he turns the camera back and then another man called him a prostitute and he drops the camera and you feel like you’re with him experiencing that moment and the chaos of that moment and the emotion of that moment. I thought it was important to get that sense of what it’s like to be in his role as a journalist on the ground.

Director Mstyslav Chernov, in the field

You start to understand the different reactions that people have and the work and the initiative that he has to take to try to do what he’s there to do and the sensitivities around it. Ultimately, no one who didn’t want to be filmed is in the film, but that was a case where they knew he was filming and  she’s yelling at him, but she just didn’t want to give her name.

There was a lot of conversation about that scene though, because I think it made people a little uncomfortable. It was surprising when we screened it for the first couple of times. We realized people laughed at that moment.

There was a little bit of a sense of tension being relieved, even though it is a tense moment. People have this surprising reaction to it, but it’s an opportunity for him to say, “I understand they’re angry, their country’s being attacked. It’s my country too, and emotions are high.” 

There’s another moment in the film that was discussed a lot and is still discussed a lot. And it’s toward the end when he and the team are sheltering from some shelling with a group of people and he’s holding the camera down and it’s rolling and people say, “This is your fault.”

And he looks to them and says, “This is MY fault?” They say, “Well, who’s bombing us? Who’s bombing us?” He says, “The Russians are.” Then they say, “Well at least the fire department could come.” And he says, “The fire department was shelled three days ago.

There is no fire department anymore.” One, it’s demonstrating the impact of an information siege, a media blackout on a population and how quickly it sent the community into chaos because they didn’t know what was going on. But also you see him reacting as a human to these statements.

He sometimes gets embarrassed about that moment because he doesn’t feel like he’s being journalistic. He is. He’s telling them what he knows and pushing back. So we discussed that scene a lot too. Ultimately it seemed like a very illustrative moment and important, and we kept it even though initially he felt like he wasn’t sure about keeping it.

I noticed two of the places where you used that idea of dropping the camera and seeing it more through his eyes were both at points of grief - both after deaths. You could have used something else, but you chose this idea of his perspective. I understand that choice. I started out as a news cameraman myself and anytime I covered those kind of stories - stories of revealing grief - it’s brutal to do. It’s brutal to be there when a parent realizes their child is gone forever.

Yeah, there are terrible moments. I think him dropping the camera and us feeling how he’s reacting to it was essential in this telling of the story. We had created and worked to create this language that you didn’t need to see his face in order to understand what he was feeling.

A lot of times if you’re working on something that if you’re thinking about subjective point of view, you’re actually looking at the person whose point of view you’re supposed to understand, you’d cut to them. But in this case, we didn’t have him on camera and that wasn’t the way we were going to tell the story. So we needed to develop this idea that you were with him.

You were seeing the world through his lens. And then by hearing him sparsely but regularly tell you about what he’s thinking, what he’s seeing, and giving you some context, but also reacting to these moments with authentic emotion, that was necessary.

That’s why we used those. It was also really important to him to say the name of the child and their age. We also would cut to some quiet moments to let the audience just process what they had seen to also simulate what his moments were like right after that. And at Frontline, we can’t do a lot of creative moving around of footage.

They’re quite strict about how chronological we are, so those quiet moments you see after the deaths of those children are actually coming, like in the moments later in that day. 

There’s a shot of the street at night after Evangelina dies and that’s that night. There’s a shot of medics outside after Ilya dies. In the distance, shelling is happening and Mstyslav is filming it and he talks about sending this footage to his editors saying, “This is painful to watch, but it must be painful to watch.”

That’s alluding to these conversations that he was having with his editors - not our kind of editing - but journalism editors, editors at the AP. He was having discussions with them about how much they were wanting to show of this devastation of these tragedies, these very intimate, difficult moments.

Mstyslav at the time was already making the argument that it’s dangerous to make war acceptable and if we sanitize these moments, it makes it acceptable. So those were conversations they were having in those moments already.

Avid timeline screenshot of the entire film

You mentioned how Frontline has rules about the chronology and the journalistic integrity of where the footage is coming from. You also had footage coming from other places - news organizations, Spanish, Russian, Ukrainian, I guess European American - were those also same day? Were you always limiting yourself to showing news footage from the same days that the footage was from?

The conceit of - and the idea of - having these news sequences came really early on. In some of the first conversations that Mstyslav and I had, this thought that we could use these montage moments with the news sequences to show how the footage they were gathering and his footage and Evgeniy Maloletka’s photos were being distributed in the news around the world.

Later, we show when the maternity hospital is shelled, then there’s this huge moment where the world sees Iryna who’s the woman who’s brought out on the stretcher, and understands what is happening in Mariupol. That’s really a moment that I think a lot of people remember from early days of 2022 when the invasion began full scale invasion began. So we could use that and then we use different languages there because it really demonstrates the impact of that moment.

Later there’s a sequence that shows how Russia was saying that that footage was fake. Because we had already established this convention of the news clips bridging certain days, that wasn’t a new idea or a new language we were introducing at the end of the film.

We’d set that up early on. So for us, this idea of news sequences and these bridging moments became really important to the construction of the story. And then we were able to also show more broadly the scale and impact of the attacks outside of Mariupol. 

We had a really phenomenal archive producer, her name’s Lindsay Schneider, and she joined the project very early on. I reached out to her immediately and asked her to start gathering the footage that was coming in from many outlets that both had Mstyslav’s footage in it, but also was from elsewhere. And one of the things I did for the first time on this film - that I’m now going to do forever - is have her label each clip with a date first.

Because Frontline’s very specific about how far outside of the perimeters you’re allowed to go, so yes, every shot that we use was scrutinized in that way. I think it’s important to know that there are guidelines that Frontline has to stick to.

I don’t think that they can be applied across the board to all films in a way that doesn’t allow for filmmakers to talk about why they want to do something in a certain way. I think Frontline’s always open to those discussions and thinking about, “Well, what are we communicating and does it feel like we’re being deceptive or we’re not saying something fully?”

So we’re always thinking about how to work with editors and with filmmakers so that they can tell the best story because that’s so important to people being able to access the journalism. But also we are sticking to the facts and the truth and not distorting it in a way where later someone can come back and poke holes in it because that’s really what you don’t want.

Mstyslav with colorist, Jim Ferguson

There’s a great shot of a little girl’s sparkly sneaker sitting on the ground in one of the hospital shots. That could have come from any day whatsoever really. Right? But you’re trying to maintain the journalistic integrity of that.

Yeah. I think that’s where the discussions happen. I would say on a film, anything that’s out of sequence at Frontline, if you’ve set up this chronological narrative, you need to allude somehow to a change in time or jump in time. Sometimes you can do that with writing, sometimes you can do that with thinking differently about the conceit or construction of the film.

Sometimes day-by-day isn’t the right way to tell the story. You’re going to have a lot fewer limitations if you don’t put yourself in that position. In this case, it was important to tell the story in that way and that’s why we did it. So it did present a lot of challenges, but ultimately we were able to figure it out. Another thing that I think is an important or interesting backstory is we also weren’t able to use any Foley on this film.

So because it was being already contested and the reporting had become part of the story already that Russians were trying to say that it was all fake, it was all the more important that we didn’t embellish any of the details. It’s an unfortunate term that sound designers and mixers use “embellish the audio.”

The connotation of that is that you are changing it or making it not authentic or less authentic than it actually is - less truthful. But what Mstyslav’s hope was, was that we would be able to create an experience that was more true to what he had on the ground in Mariupol, which was beyond what his small microphone was able to truly capture.

So in some ways, you could say that the opportunity to enhance that or embellish that audio would’ve made it MORE real.

We had these discussions with our editors and our fact-checkers and our teams as we deliberated over whether or not those could be included. Ultimately we decided for this film it was not okay because this is being treated and thought of as a record.

The idea, again, that someone could come back and poke holes in your reporting and in the journalism would truly undercut its ability to stand firmly and reach people and help them understand what happened there. I wouldn’t say that’s true for every documentary. I think adding audio is, in many cases, okay. It’s just this one in particular, it’s a record of what happened.

I can think of an example of that which is, on day four, he says he hears a fighter jet and yet you really don’t hear the fighter jet very well, if at all. That was one of those things I thought about - you could put in a fighter jet sound if you wanted to, but no…

That’s exactly it. There was conversation about adding that. There were hopes at some point that we could, but also once we had these conversations, which are important but difficult conversations sometimes about what we can or can’t do in the edit, we decided as a team that we weren’t gonna be able to add anything like that.

Our sound mixer, Jim Sullivan was wonderful. He did a great job with the audio he had, but we weren’t able to add anything additional. Also, Mstyslav tried to find in his own recording sounds, the same kind of fighter jet from a different shot and we considered using that, but ultimately we decided we wouldn’t do that. One way that we did think about sound though - to create a more immersive experience - was using the the music more like sound design.

Jordan Dykstra, our composer, his style and what we worked with him on was more hollow industrial sounds and drums and heartbeats and things that are not melodic. There were no pianos. One of the rules Mstyslav had at the beginning was: no piano.

Before we started working officially with Jordan, I had his temp music, I also downloaded music from horror films. We had some other temp references. We thought of the music more of like a soundscape design that was part of how we tried to fill in those spaces of what otherwise could have been beefed-up moments.

We created an experience using those to kind of create that audio experience. I think it especially works well in theaters and so it’s been really nice to work on something that you get to watch in theaters with audiences and hear that really incredible 5.1 design.

Normally I’m working on films that go to streaming for Frontline. We would go to streaming or broadcast, which I love and appreciate getting to do. I’ve had less experience getting to work on something that has a theatrical distribution like this and that’s been really nice.

Can you explain the process a little bit of cutting this verite footage, looking at the footage, determining how you, what story you were gonna tell and then figuring out, oh this might not even be a story we include but I’m gonna edit it. Who knows, maybe you went to a daycare center or something, it could have been anything but you would cut something together and later on determine whether it was gonna be part of the larger narrative.

The first thing that happened was I got Mstyslav’s clips that he had already cut and dispatched from the field. That was a series of clips that added up to maybe 30 minutes of material and were in sequence for the most part. He would film them and file them in chronological order, day-by-day. That was sort of a starting point to get a full scope of beginning to end.

The footage made its way here and as I logged it from day one - actually even days preceding the invasion - and then the first day that they’re in Mariupol to the day they escape. As I’m logging, I’m taking a lot of notes about scenes that we could or might consider including.

I wasn’t cutting anything yet. I was also thinking about what was happening in the rest of the world around the same time because we were already talking about how we wanted to use the news to contextualize what you’re seeing very narrowly in the footage from Mariupol.

We wanted to know: what is the world saying about what’s happening in Ukraine? What is happening in the rest of the country? Then you can look at more narrowly on the ground what Mstyslav’s saying that’s happening in Mariupol.

We had many documents, but one of the things I referred to the most probably was this handwritten timeline I made, just a quick reference of “what day are we on?” “It’s February 24th, that’s day one.” “This is March 5th, that’s day 10.” Then I just filled in touchstone points for me as reference to understand how things unfolded and then thinking about the construction of the days.

We can’t include every single day, that would be even more difficult to make it through and you’d really lose some of the momentum, so in order to to tell the story, we needed to think about which days we would highlight.

That’s not to say the city stopped being shelled for those days or Mstyslav wasn’t filming those days. It was just the main themes that we were including didn’t happen on those days, so we were able to figure out how to pace it and get to certain points in the story.

I remember early on, I was describing it to a co-worker and I said, “There’s almost three movements in this sequence of footage: He’s in the hospital filming these tragedies with these children, then he’s out in the world filming the chaos of the city, then he is escaping and trying to get out of the city.” 

Later, I thought, “Oh, those are acts, they’re not movements. I’m making up a new word.” It was a very organic process. Because we had this chronology we were sticking to and then we knew what the key moments would be, we really just structured the days around those.

We put a lot of thought into these transition points between the acts because those were the moments where some of the questions and reflections that Mstyslav was having we were able to include along with his personal archive and footage that he shot over the many years that he’s been doing this work both outside of Ukraine and inside Ukraine. 

In the middle of act one and act two, he reaches a point of asking “Why am I doing what I’m doing?” He’s just witnessed the death of three children. 

He is reflecting, at that point, the 8 years of war that he’s covered and how nothing has really changed. It’s a low point. It does transition him out into the world where he begins again filming beyond the hospital. 

They return to a hospital and get trapped there. That’s the moment between act two and act three where he has to decide if he’s going to keep going and he has to decide why he is doing what he’s doing or at least attempt to understand that for himself. 

He says, “If my daughters ask me, ‘What did you do to stop this madness?’ I want to be able to give them an answer” and that’s what propels him in the story to leave the hospital and try to escape. Those were really important moments to not overwhelm with his thoughts but to allow the audience to think about and understand both context of the war in Ukraine, but also his thinking and what he was feeling in those moments.

There was a little quick cut montage in that little section that was unusual for the film. Was there. What was the creative idea behind that montage?

There are two of those actually. They’re both at the transition points of the acts. Those are the moments with his archive and coverage of wars over the past 10 years that he’s been doing conflict journalism. Actually it’s inspired by some work he had done previously. As I mentioned, he’s a novelist, he is a journalist. He’s also done a lot of experimental video work. 

He had an exhibition. I remember watching clips from his website when we first began working together and he had done these rapid cut sequences of footage very similar to the ones that you ultimately see in the film - not the shot selection but just the style and so that informed how we cut those sequences. It was an idea that came early on. 

We also tried to think about how those worked alongside the new sequences, which were also fast in the way that they were cut. The film is built from his on-the-ground “raw”, in quotes because obviously anything that’s raw does have a lot of intention and crafting to it to make it feel raw in verite, but we have these raw in-the-moment verite moments with him. 

We have the news sequences and then we have what we called “memory sequences” that were at the transition points between each act.

Tell me a little bit about how working on this project affected you, or did you try to protect yourself psychologically from the brutality that you were seeing - the death and the grief. It’s a lot for an editor to spend six months or longer on that kind of material.

Yeah, it was very difficult to watch some of these scenes. They’re obviously devastating and sometimes it’s witnessing the pain of the parents that feels hardest and the sounds of their grief outside of what were otherwise visually difficult moments. 

The sounds are what can really sometimes feel most haunting. I remember watching scenes and just crying and just being completely overwhelmed by what was happening on screen. I can only imagine what it would be like to be there in person. Frontline works on a lot of sad stories and I’ve worked on films that have been upsetting like this. 

They’re always very hard, but you do come up with tools to try to make your experience as the editor better. I always go back to the fact that I’m very mission-driven. I like working on something that I think will make more accessible stories that otherwise might not be.

Previously a film I worked on was about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. You’re seeing children starving and it’s difficult to watch. It’s awful, but people need to know and so how do you tell the story in a way that makes it accessible? That’s not to say that it’s acceptable, it should be difficult, but it should give people insight into what is happening and in a way that isn’t just in small news clips. 

Those are important, but what we do in documentary is contextualize and create narratives and deeper understanding hopefully, and that’s what we aspire to do. 

These stories become part of history. I think what was also something I’ll always remember about this project was that as difficult as the material was, - working with this new director was so inspiring because he was somebody who had been working toward this moment in some ways his entire career and he met the moment with everything he had

Collaborating with someone like that who is creative and the right person to tell the story for so many reasons was so fulfilling to me and was such an honor that helped get through what was an otherwise very difficult story. 

I don’t think it would’ve been the same if he wasn’t the director -  the difficulty of the work that this film required and watching really devastating footage and difficult stories. 

I have a wonderful husband who has been such a rock and supportive of me through all my work at Frontline. It’s been a blessing to have him. 

Also at Frontline we do trainings with this center called the Dart Center for Journalism and they have given us tools to be more aware of what we’re exposing ourselves to as we’re logging footage and working with footage.

Whether you’re a colorist who’s thinking about how you’re coloring this difficult moment and realizing how much you’re seeing but not really thinking about what is on screen. You’re thinking about the color. Being mindful about what you’re exposing yourself to as far as sound is concerned. Turning the sound down on clips that are grating and you could desensitize yourself to. 

One of the other tools they gave us was - speaking of color - was anything you can turn black or white or desaturate is another way to reduce the stimulation. Very practical things like that can help with difficult footage.

Michelle Mizner producer/editor

Talk to me about your role as a producer on the film. How is that different than your role as an editor on the film?

I’ve been a producer/editor combo at Frontline for the 10 years that I’ve been with the series. I sometimes wear different hats on different projects depending on what they need. Sometimes I’ve been only the producer, sometimes I’ve been only the editor.

I love working on projects though, where I get to be both and when I do play both roles it often is determined by when I enter the project. For this film, the conceit of a film didn’t exist until after Mstyslav had left Mariupol. He was thinking that maybe he could turn this footage into a film, but there was no plan to do so until later. 

It needed people in the role of ushering that process through: of making the film. I am one of the producers on the project who help make that happen. I’ve played similar roles on other projects.

Sometimes what my role as a producer will be is conducting interviews with the filmmaker or in other cases with a correspondent, whether they’re on camera or audio, sort of gathering the material in a way that is distinct from what I would do if I was operating as the editor exclusively.

When I take on an editor role exclusively, that has typically been when there’s already a production team, a producer team assembled and there already is a conceit for the film and that role is filled already - in a good way - and that and there’s already someone doing that work and so it doesn’t need to be done by anyone else and that’s when I’ll join as the editor. 

Also, one of the responsibilities I have when I’m also playing the producer role is managing all of the Google documents that we have, so managing the script, managing our timelines, overseeing our team of whether it’s archive producers or translators, various members that join the team. 

And then thinking a lot about the destiny of the film, the strategy of the film, how are we going to distribute and in this case, thinking about this being a film that had what I felt was strong potential to premiere at a festival in a theatrical setting and believed so much in Mstyslav as a director to also be an ambassador for the film.

He’s a new director who we thought of at the time as someone who a festival like Sundance would really embrace. When I’m thinking of what a producer does, they’re gathering the ingredients and one of the ingredients in a film like this and in the story of a film is how will you distribute it and roll it out? How will you package it to present it to the world? 

And this was one where I was very involved in the conversations about how we would submit to festivals: actually doing that work and then how we would talk about the film in the world. It was a challenging film to think about how to get people to come see. 

We’ve attempted to be very thoughtful about any time the film is in a setting like a film festival or an award ceremony. Ultimately this is a film that we wish didn’t exist.

It’s a terrible story and it’s still happening. As a team we’ve always kept that at the forefront and worked to try to keep that at the forefront: that while we’re entering these spaces with this film, we can’t let the film become of those spaces. 

We need to prepare audiences to see it and also well-represent the real stories that are behind Mariupol and Ukraine and really anywhere in the world where war is happening. There’s nothing to celebrate here. 

The only thing we can hope is that a film like this will help people understand even more how terrible war is.

I noticed that you’ve been a director and a cinematographer. How does your expertise as an editor affect either of those jobs or vice versa?

I started my career doing everything because that was just the way that I worked and I think a lot of people start that way. You do whatever needs to be done and because tools are really accessible now you can try them all out. I think it’s been really useful for me to do everything. 

I started filming and editing things in high school and through college and then as an independent producer out of college I would sometimes take on producer roles or I would shoot things for friends or direct things sometimes or edit sometimes. 

I kind of just did what needed to be done and that also translated early on into my role at Frontline. I wore many hats depending on what the project was and what it needed. I worked on podcasts, I worked on web interactives, VR… so I really just did a lot and it was only in the past couple of years that I’ve had conversations with my supervisors, including Raney Aronson, who’s the EP at Frontline, about specializing more and focusing more on films and in the role of a editor, producer, sometimes as an editor exclusively.

Really, I just love being in the edit and I love working with directors, so that’s been a more recent focus, which I think has been good. Sometimes you need to really pare down and decide where you want to put more of your energy so that it doesn’t get spread out over too many things. 

That’s not to say I won’t decide to do other kinds of work in the future, but at this moment in time I’m really enjoying working on films, collaborating with directors, and while I have that experience to draw from, I’m hoping to do more of that at the moment. 

I think having done those things before, it helps inform how you understand the work of your peers and your colleagues. You understand the vulnerabilities and the pressure they have, whether it’s in the way things are filmed, you understand how difficult it is to be in production, to be in the field.

You’ve been there, you will be there again, you are there. It’s really physical, emotional labor that we all do when we’re producing in the field. When directors have the weight of and responsibility of a story on their shoulders to be able to understand that and be there for them as a collaborator, but also as an ear, someone to help them develop their vision.

I love finding people whose story is connected to the film they’re about to make and knowing that within this longer conversation that we’re having or within this document that they’re writing with prompts that I’ve put in or it’s just helping them fine-tune and realize their own potential. That’s such a privilege to get to be a part of.

Final question for you. Do you have to flex different muscles editorially when you work on different types of documentaries? This was very verite. Maybe you’ve done more scripted documentaries? Is there a difference editorially for you to deal with the different types of docs?

I aspire for there not to be. I really try to cut the same way if it’s a sit-down interview with some coverage of a scene as I do when I’m doing verite. I look for the moments where there’s heat, where there’s emotion, where there’s anything that helps make it feel more authentic. 

That’s how I work in verite as well. I’m trying to find moments that help illustrate what the person is saying. If it’s a sit-down interview and they’re talking about something in the abstract - like there was a film I worked on about the separation of children from their parents at the border. 

The father was being interviewed about being separated from his daughter. When I watched the coverage of him reunited with his daughter, I remembered finding this moment where they’re playing hide and seek and she, for a second you can see in her face, that she can’t find him and she’s scared. 

Pairing that kind of scene and emotion and those images with his interview about being separated from his daughter and what they went through when she was alone, it was a really powerful way to illustrate what he was saying. I’m always looking for those kinds of moments to help illuminate what’s being described in an interview. 

That also is the skill of great DPs and getting really great footage, knowing how much work there was put into gathering that. So as an editor really investing in searching and pulling out those gems and helping people connect to that story, again, making it accessible and memorable.

Thank you so much for talking to us about this film. I really appreciate it. It was very powerful and I appreciate your work on it.

Thank you. It was great to meet you. I’m a fan of the podcast and the book. Thank you and all the editors who’ve had conversations with you in the past, because they’ve certainly helped me.