At its finest, journalism is heroism carried out by men and women who risk life and limb to bring monstrous truths to light. 20 Days in Mariupol is an example of that valiant work, providing an on-the-ground view of the 2022 siege of the southern Ukrainian port city by Russian Federation forces.
Proving Vladimir Putin’s claims about his campaign to be demonstrably false, it’s unthinkable horror that’s simultaneously large and intimate, and a remarkable snapshot of the war crimes that—as the news reminds us on a nightly basis—are still being perpetrated to this day.
Produced by The Associated Press and Frontline PBS, 20 Days in Mariupol was written, directed and shot by Mstyslav Chernov, an AP video journalist and the only reporter (along with colleagues Evgeniy Maloletka and Vasilisa Stepanenko) to remain in Mariupol once Russia arrived.
Over the course of the 20 days that make up his non-fiction film—premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Documentary Competition—what he endures and captures is nothing short of gut-wrenching, as innocent civilians are thrust into a maelstrom of endless shelling, gunfire, and loss of life. To describe it as hell, as one woman does while grieving the loss of two children, a third one sleeping on her chest, is to understate its terribleness.
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Following a brief prologue involving Chernov and a Ukrainian soldier named Vladimir spotting Russian tanks on the street, their sides emblazoned with the letter Z, 20 Days in Mariupol begins in earnest on Feb. 24, 2022, with Chernov intoning, “Wars don’t start with explosions. They start with silence.”
The eerie quiet of Mariupol’s streets during these final pre-bombardment moments is haunting, and it’s revisited in the film’s closing passage, when the material throbs with the dull ache of wind rushing through destroyed buildings and cars. In-between, the action plays out to the harrowing sounds of war: screeching overhead planes; thunderous crashing and rumbling caused by cannons and missile strikes; and panicked voices and tormented wailing from those caught in this calamity’s crossfire.
Chernov narrates 20 Days in Mariupol in a monotone that’s practically dripping with numb despair—a fitting tenor for the atrocities he depicts. An hour after Chernov shows up, the bombs begin to fall, and on a damp street under a gray sky, he meets a frightened woman who asks, “Where should I hide?” Chernov recommends that she return home because “they don’t shoot civilians.” Alas, that turns out to be incorrect. When he runs into this same woman again at a fitness center-turned-shelter full of mothers and children, he apologizes for his error, given what he’s learned about the conduct of Putin’s army as it rampages through the countryside, inching ever closer to Mariupol, a key strategic stronghold located close to the Russian border.
“Fuck you, prostitute,” a man spits at Chernov for trying to film him and his wife as they abandon the city. Chernov concedes that he understands their anger but “it’s our country too, and we have to tell its story.” 20 Days in Mariupol is reportage designed not to exploit but to expose, and it focuses on Chernov’s efforts to both document what’s taking place in Mariupol and to come up with a means of getting his footage out of Ukraine and to the world, where it might spark outrage and change.
That’s certainly Vladimir’s hope, and thus the reason he endeavors to help Chernov safely navigate the area and, then, escape it. Yet such a task is easier said than done, considering that the Russian Federation army’s incursion soon leaves the city without water, electricity, and cell phone and Internet service.
20 Days in Mariupol doesn’t take long to devolve into grim nightmarishness. On day four, Chernov visits Hospital No. 2 and almost immediately encounters an ambulance in which a four-year-old child is receiving CPR from desperate medical professionals, the kid’s mother howling “My baby. Oh god” nearby.
Rushed inside to an ER room whose floor is streaked with blood, the child dies, and the primary physician tells Chernov, “Show this Putin bastard the eyes of this child and all these doctors are crying.” The director does as he’s instructed, keeping his camera trained on the kid’s lifeless foot and on the miserable faces of the surrounding adults. In the wake of subsequent, similar visions of carnage and suffering, including a father bawling over his dead 16-year-old son, Chernov admits, “This is painful to watch. But it must be painful to watch.”
Everywhere Chernov turns, he finds tragedy: a mother crying out “why?” upon hearing that her 18-month-old son has passed away; an injured teen being tended to in the dark on a filthy floor, his leg seemingly destined for amputation; and a pregnant woman with a bloody belly being carried through a yard on a stretcher. Whenever possible, Chernov strives to learn the names of those he comes across, intent on making 20 Days in Mariupol both a historical record and a memorial for those who may not survive the Russian onslaught.
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As evacuation corridors are shut, social order breaks down, anger and anguish escalates, and mass graves are filled by a volunteer who confesses, “What are people supposed to feel in this situation?” Tension reaches a fever pitch, and so too do the pleas (“Guys, film so the whole world will see this chaos”) to make sure the international community comprehends what’s truly taking place.
There’s little time for poetry in 20 Days in Mariupol, only the appalling, unvarnished reality of a massacre of innocent civilians masquerading as a defensive Russian military endeavor, and of a courageous journalist trying to do his job in the midst of active, lethal combat.
Refuting Putin’s political and media cronies who slander the reporter’s footage as “fake news,” Chernov’s film is a shocking and heartbreaking first-person portrait of an assault without justification or morality. Far more perished in Mariupol before it fell (on day 86) than Chernov himself documents; estimates place the toll at 25,000, if not higher. Yet thanks to his bravery and commitment, their deaths, and the ruin brought about by Putin’s unforgivable war, won’t soon be forgotten.
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