“20 Days in Mariupol” is one of the most painful films I have ever watched: it is also one of the most important. This stunning documentary not only gives a chilling firsthand view of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it captures actual war crimes.
Due to its strategic location, Mariupol has become one of the most important regions in the war. On the eve of Russia’s invasion, Ukranian filmmaker and journalist Mstyslav Chernov and two colleagues entered the port city to cover the situation as press. When bombs began falling nearby, the team suddenly found themselves trapped in a dangerous conflict zone after the siege began. Hiding out in hospitals so they could capture footage and share it with the world, the trio spent 20 days filming this unflinching account of what was really happening to the country and her people. This documentary is an extraordinary achievement in reporting, as it fights Putin’s extensive propaganda efforts and exposes the harsh reality. His camera captures the truth (that civilians were being targeted) and exposes Russia’s lies. (After some of Chernov’s footage was shown on global news networks, Putin claimed it was staged, “fake news” — which is infuriating).
A word of warning: once you see this film, you can never go back. There are things shown here that may haunt you forever. The images of casualties and destruction are heartbreaking, upsetting, and extremely traumatic. Chernov doesn’t turn away from the most horrific scenes that he encounters, including graphic footage of bloody deaths (both human and animal) and savage wartime violence. There are close-ups of the lifeless bodies of infants, pregnant women, children, and adults. There are full morgues, mass graves, desperation, and utter despair. It’s disturbing to watch, but it also a crucial step in realizing the horrors and the true cost of war.
Chernov narrates the film with an appropriately somber tone, giving a first-hand look at what it was like during the early days of the conflict. His on-camera interviews with Ukranians will tear your heart apart, conveying the emotional harm that wartime brings. This first-person view takes audiences inside hospitals and into the emergency rooms alongside doctors, nurses, and their patients who are in need of critical care. He goes underground with locals into their makeshift basement bomb shelters, spending time with the citizens who are living the horror in real time. As Ukranians begin living without heat, electricity, internet, phones, and with hospitals beginning to run out of critical medicine, Chernov captures a sense of isolation as Mariupol’s residents are cut off from communication networks and much-needed aid.
The most controversial scenes are ones that some viewers may find tasteless, but they are also some of the most important to see. On several occasions, Chernov keeps his camera pointed on grieving parents and their dead children, even filming unsuccessful efforts of resuscitation by medical personnel. These scenes are bloody, graphic, tragic, and highly distressing, but they also foster a deeper understanding of the pain and suffering that Ukranians are going through.
Despite being extremely difficult to watch, “20 Days in Mariupol” is a film immeasurable value. It not only offers an astonishing record of events and serves as a time capsule of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it fosters a better understanding of how traumatic events affect our fellow human beings. This documentary is a powerful achievement in wartime reporting.
By: Louisa Moore