THE STORY – On the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a team of Ukrainian journalists enter the strategic eastern port city of Mariupol. During the subsequent siege and assault, as bombs fall, inhabitants flee, and access to electricity, food, water, and medicine are severed, the team — the only international journalists left — struggles to cover the war atrocities and to transmit their footage out. Eventually surrounded by Russian soldiers, they shelter in a hospital, unsure of how they’ll escape.
THE CAST – N/A
THE TEAM – Mstyslav Chernov (Director)
THE RUNNING TIME – 94 Minutes
In less than a month, it will have been one year since Russia invaded Ukraine in a significant escalation of the Russo-Ukranian war. With the war still ongoing, despite the decrease in media coverage — as is natural for any conflict that goes on for an extended period of time — films such as “20 Days in Mariupol” help remind viewers why they should care about the devastating ongoing situation. Director Mstyslav Chernov, a Ukrainian war correspondent, photographer, and novelist, documents the invasion of his home country in a challenging but necessary manner.
From the film’s opening sequences, in which buildings are being destroyed and cities are torn apart, the audience is placed immediately in Mariupol. Instead of relying on news reports or talking heads, Chernov is dedicated to being in the middle of the action and capturing the events in the moment. He doesn’t go into detail on the background of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia or report on the events following their exit from the country, yet instead uses the documentary to give an accurate snapshot of what it was like to be in Mariupol for the first 20 days of the invasion, making it clear that the tragic events did not stop once they had to make their escape from the city. This places a personal perspective on the situation, which is much more impactful than just another documentary presenting a tense situation as old news.
The range of personal stories Chernov highlights is heartbreaking to watch, but their willingness to be open and to show this portion of their life on-screen underscores the importance of this situation. Families accept that Chernov is filming their loved ones in extremely vulnerable scenarios and tell him to tell it honestly and showcase it to the world so that they might know the truth of what is happening. Whether it is the young boy who had his leg blown off while playing a game of soccer or the failed attempt to resuscitate an 18-month-old child with a defibrillator, these scenes are hard to watch but honestly showcase the trauma that war can bring to regular citizens.
This documentary is about the everyday citizen in Ukraine during this time and the dangers of reporting on a harrowing situation. With roads being closed off and internet connection cutting out, Chernov points out the lack of options to safely get his footage out of Mariupol and to fellow reporters, only being able to send small clips whenever they could get a signal. When Russian troops surrounded their base in a hospital, Chernov and his crew were forced to leave in a Red Cross convoy, safely escorting the footage out of Ukraine. “20 Days In Mariupol” highlights the dangers of being a journalist covering the war, knowing their lives would be at risk if caught. The work that Chernov and his team did during those 20 days should not be forgotten, nor should the fact that this war is still ongoing and that citizens in Ukraine are still suffering to this day.
Despite the heavy news coverage of the first month of the war last year, “20 Days in Mariupol” is an essential reminder to the rest of the world of how bad the events were and why they should still care about it to this day. Showing the invasion in terms of its massive scale with the destruction of buildings and its smaller moments with personal stories from the impacted citizens adds emotional weight that a regular news report just cannot capture. Chernov does not care to make this film flashy or polished but wants to present the situation as he saw it in those difficult 20 days, and that is what makes it so effective as a documentary.