When watching Mstyslav Chernov’s Oscar-winning film 20 Days in Mariupol, Alex Vernon, professor in English and specialist in 20th century war-literature, could not but see parallels with The Spanish Earth. This documentary by Joris Ivens, John Fernhout and Ernest Hemingway was the result of 40 days of film shooting in besieged Madrid in 1937. Both films draws on personal footage with an harrowing account of civilians caught in the siege, in 1936 a new kind of warfare.

“And the Oscar goes to…” Documenting War in Ukraine (2022) and Spain (1937)

MAY 24, 2024, BY ALEX VERNON (first published on the ALBA-Volunteers website, with their courtesy published here)

Why we should read the Oscar-winning documentary about Mariupol as a tribute to The Spanish Earth, Joris Ivens’s Civil War classic?

Watching Mstyslav Chernov’s 20 Days in Mariupol, which shows the Russian bombing of the Ukrainian city at the beginning of the ongoing war, I thought: “I’ve seen this movie before, if with a markedly different soundtrack.” Chernov’s film won the 2024 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Reviewers have described it as grim, brutal, and difficult for its images of civilian casualties, but also as essential and necessary, the language of moral imperative.
The film that 20 Days in Mariupol brought to mind was The Spanish Earth, directed in 1937 by the Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens, with the help of Ernest Hemingway, John Fernhout, John Dos Passos, and Helen van Dongen. The Spanish Earth also based its moral authority on the destruction by air of city and village, Madrid and Morata de Tajuña, and on the civilian victims that bombing caused. As we know, the Spanish Civil War was the first conflict on European soil which targeted civilian populations from the skies—then in Spain and now in Ukraine, by the authoritarian aggressors.
The Spanish Earth is 20 Days’ historic and cinematic precedent. Both films show us enemy aircraft like predators above. Both show urban landscapes turned inside out. Both show us dead bodies. There’s one shot in the new film of the feet of a dead child on a gurney that verily quotes a shot in the earlier film. “Where do I go?” plead women displaced from their homes in both films. Chernov’s hospital scenes pick up where Ivens’s combat triage scenes left off.
Both films say: Look.

Stills from “20 Days in Mariupol” (left) and “The Spanish Earth”.

Chernov and Ivens even sound alike when discussing their films. These weren’t pre-scripted documentaries, but immersive experiences that required story-building after the fact. And is Chernov’s narrating style very different from Hemingway’s in the context of their respective era’s voiceover standards? Released during their wars, both films bear the political function of drumming up international support for the threatened governments. (Twenty, forty, eighty years from now, 20 Days in Mariupol might strike viewers unaware of its history as simply a powerful anti-war film.)
The Spanish Earth wrapped up shooting prior to the bombing of Guernica but implicated the terrorist atrocity, nevertheless. In the final scene of 20 Days in Mariupol, reporters confront the Russian ambassador outside the United Nations assembly hall. Clearly visible on the wall in the background is the U.N.’s reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica, with its buildings and bodies turned inside out and its references to print journalism—the narrative war.
Chernov’s film includes one type of footage that, although real, is a diegetic fiction insofar as his crew, with whom we’ve virtually embedded, couldn’t have taken it. The documentary periodically returns to these establishing shots (of sorts) of the city from above the city, floating, gliding, surveying. At no point do the filmmakers use or talk about drones. These shots provide strange, unsettling relief from the relentless on-the-ground verité sequences—strange because the respite still trains the eye on the destruction even if at an aerie distance; unsettling because it also inhabits the predator aircraft’s field of vision. 20 Days unintentionally proves what Paul Virilio and Susan Sontag claimed: The history of modern warfare is bound up with the history of camera technologies.
When 20 Days delivers me into the drone’s eye view, I can’t but superimpose onto the imagined apparatus of the drone the cryptic, electrified eyeball at the top of Picasso’s 1937 painting—floating, surveying, the screaming inside-out world below. That eyeball is a drone before there were drones.

In 1938, The Spanish Earth could not have won Best Documentary Feature. Its politics were too fraught for the times. Besides, the award didn’t exist yet.
Two urgent propagandistic war films first received the honor as a special award in 1941, before the category became permanent. Kukan featured China’s resistance to Japan. In Target for Tonight, produced by the British Ministry of Information, “each part is played by the actual man or woman who does the job,” according to the title sequence, the overall job being a representative Royal Air Force bombing mission over Germany. The film is representative but fabricated, with scripted lines, a staged aircraft interior, a diorama of the target, and hazy images of German anti-aircraft crews shouting “Fire!” in English.
For all the blatant messaging, The Spanish Earth’s reels were real, its historic and cinematic legacy far more enduring. But no wonder Target for Tonight won special recognition by the Academy. The film’s scenario begins in the Bomber Command’s Photographic Unit. It foregrounds and celebrates the camera—the mission’s essential first weapon. The diorama rail junction excludes the possibility of one’s imagining civilian casualties, even from an errant munition.
Incidentally, the U.N.’s Guernica reproduction that is so prominently present during the Russian ambassador’s denials in 20 Days in Mariupol—denials that echoed Nationalist Spain’s denials of the bombing of Guernica—is the same reproduction that was carefully covered up for the hallway press cameras ahead of Colin Powell’s duplicitous presentation to the full assembly and the whole world, rattling the sabers for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Bombs and missiles led the way.

Alex Vernon, the M.E. and Ima Graves Peace Distinguished Professor of English at Hendrix College, is the author of Hemingway’s Second War and a Glossary and Commentary on “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (Kent State).
More at alex-vernon.squarespace.com
The original article at ALBA Volunteers website (Abraham LIncoln International Brigade):


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