As 20 Days in Mariupol tragically demonstrates, as long as there are wars, there will be war documentaries.
First-time filmmaker Mstyslav Chernov’s effort is a particularly immersive example of the genre, chronicling the weekslong siege of the titular Ukrainian city by Russian forces. Chernov, a journalist for The Associated Press, and his colleague, photographer Evgeniy Maloletka, went to the port city in late February 2022, convinced that its strategic location would make it a prime target. They were right, as Russian bombs started hitting the city just hours later. The resulting footage forms the crux of this documentary co-presented by AP and PBS’ Frontline and receiving its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
20 Days in Mariupol
The Bottom Line
Grueling but necessary viewing.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Director: Mstyslav Chernov
1 hour 35 minutes
The filmmakers capture the shock and agony of the residents as they suddenly find themselves under bombardment. In the immediate aftermath, not all of them were pleased to see the journalists, some reacting with hostility to their presence. “I understand their anger,” Chernov comments in his narration. “Their country is being attacked. It’s our country, too. And we have to tell its story.”
And tell the story they did, at considerable personal risk. We see footage of a terrified little girl, whimpering “I don’t want to die, I wish it would all end soon”; a father grieving over the body of his teenage son, who was killed while playing soccer; doctors, hampered by a lack of antibiotics and painkillers, desperately attempting to treat casualties; the dead body of a tiny baby being wrapped in a sheet; burials in mass graves; and people resorting to looting out of desperation and, in some cases, greed. As one doctor comments, war has a tendency to bring out both the best and the worst in people.
It’s heartbreaking to see footage of four men carrying a bloodied pregnant woman on a stretcher out of a bombed maternity hospital (we later learn that both she and her unborn baby died). Infuriatingly, the Russian leader and media insist that this scene, and all the rest, is merely staged propaganda designed to rally the world to Ukraine’s cause. As Chernov and others in the film point out, this makes their coverage all the more important to counteract Russian disinformation.
At one point, Chernov and his colleague are rescued by Ukrainian solders from a hospital where they had been trapped by snipers. The soldiers had been sent to retrieve the journalists to prevent them from being captured by Russian forces and tortured to make false confessions about their footage being faked. We see the soldiers and journalists running through the streets while under heavy gunfire, the harrowing footage playing out like a scene from a Michael Bay movie.
The raw footage is largely unembellished, save for Jordan Dykstra’s eerie electronic music score that could easily be appropriated for a horror film (which, of course, 20 Days in Mariupol is, of a sort). That immediacy only enhances the documentary’s visceral power, even if it occasionally gives it the feel of an extended news segment. What comes through most vividly, other than the human tragedy on display, is the vital importance of war correspondents and the courage and ingenuity they must possess in order to work under such life-threatening conditions.
Chernov was in Mariupol for less than three weeks. As onscreen text informs us, the city fell into Russian hands after 86 days. Some 25,000 people are estimated to have been killed, although the number is probably much higher. And since the war is far from over, there will probably be many more documentaries such as this one to come.