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’20 Days in Mariupol’ Review: Ukraine Documentary Shows the Unspeakable

Sundance Film Festival 2023: Mstyslav Chernov’s film, shot entirely in the first three weeks of the war, is a brutally disturbing chronicle of inhumanity

AWARDS BEAT

Throughout “20 Days in Mariupol,” a documentary filmed during the first month of Russian’s invasion of Ukraine, people turn to conflict journalist Mstyslav Chernov’s cameras and make a demand: Film this. Show people what’s going on.

A policeman does it. Citizens whose homes have been destroyed by Russian artillery do it. A doctor does it most memorably, turning to Chernov in a makeshift emergency room and begging, “Film how these mothers—-ers are killing children.”

“20 Days in Mariupol,” which premiered on Friday night at the Sundance Film Festival, is the result of Chernov doing what they asked. It is not artful. It is urgent and ruthless and horrifying, and it shows the unspeakable.

A 4-year-old girl lies dead on a gurney. A grandmother cradles her cat in a makeshift bomb shelter after her home has been destroyed. The bloody shoe of a boy whose legs were blown off while he was playing soccer lies on the floor of a hospital. Russian tanks with Z painted on the side fire at apartment buildings. A gurney gets scrubbed down in an attempt to wash off the blood of a 16-year-old. Doctors use a defibrillator in an attempt to revive an 18-month-old boy. It doesn’t work. A maternity hospital is bombed. So is the last fire department in the city.

Evgeny Afineevsky’s recent documentary “Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom,” which was also shot in the early days of the war, provided context and sought out inspirational figures and moments of beauty in the midst of horror. “20 Days” is reportage rather than context; moments of beauty would seem out of place. 

The film is the work of reporters from the Associated Press who opted to head to the vital port town of Mariupol rather than leave the country when war seemed imminent. For the first 20 days of the war, they remained in that town and chronicled what happened, sending out their footage in 10-second clips whenever they could find working cell service. 

Eventually, the hospital in which they were based was surrounded by Russian troops, and they had little choice but to leave in a Red Cross convoy, which brought their footage to an end while the war continued.

The original plan was simply to supply footage for the AP, a news organization that was not in the film business. But Frontline stepped in and helped produce the film, which never leaves the boundaries of those 20 days. Chernov narrates the film himself in English, though almost all of the dialogue in the film is in Russian, the language spoken in that section of Ukraine near the Russian border.

On the first day, bombs started to fall on the city and Chernov was naive enough to tell one frightened women to return to her home, because the Russians definitely won’t attack civilian areas. (She shows up later, homeless.) By Day 3, a fitness center has been turned into one of Mariupol’s biggest improvised shelters; by Day 7, the last road out of the city closes.

The camera crew roams the city when it can, but that becomes increasingly difficult as the siege intensifies. Electricity, gas and water are cut off; internet and phone service falter; hospitals run short on antibiotics and painkillers. People use generators to charge their cellphones, but only so that they can use them as flashlights in whatever basement they’re using as a shelter.

The cameras keep rolling and the film edits the footage into a straightforward, brutally efficient chronicle of inhumanity. (It also mixes in the outrage on international television when the footage makes it on the air, as well as the official Russian response, which is to talk about fake news and staged events and crisis actors.) “My brain will definitely want to forget all this,” says Chernov at one point, “but the camera will not let it happen.”

The goal of “20 Days in Mariupol” is just that: to show viewers and not let them forget. It doesn’t explain the war; it just says that this is what happened in this specific place for those three weeks.

After the second of those weeks, a young mother looks into the camera and wails, “What can we tell you? That we’ve spent two weeks in hell?” And while it was a powerful question to ask in early March, 2022, those two weeks are now almost a year.

As Chernov said when he introduced the film at Sundance’s Egyptian Theatre, “The film ends on Day 20, but the war has not. What you see here is happening right now. It’s not history yet. It’s present.”