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20 Days in Mariupol

Directed by Mstyslav Chernov
Produced by Raney Aronson, Mstyslav Chernov, Michelle Mizner, and Derl McCrudden
With: Mstyslav Chernov, Evgeniy Maloletka, Liudmyla Amelkina, Zhanna Homa, Oleksandr Ivanov, Irina Kalinina, and Vasiliy Nebenzya
Cinematography: Mstyslav Chernov
Editing: Michelle Mizner
Music: Jordan Dykstra
Runtime: 95 min
Release Date: 21 November 2023
Aspect Ratio: 1.78 : 1
Color: Color

With the small size and high storage capacity of modern high-definition consumer and professional video recording equipment, filmmakers, journalists, and ordinary citizens of the twenty-first century have been able to document the real-time horrors of warfare in ways that would have been unimaginable in any previous era. From Restrepo (2010) to The Square (2013) to Last Men in Aleppo (2017) to For Sama (2019), documentaries that show us the brutality and randomness of mass destruction have almost become commonplace. Whenever I sit down to watch one of these films, I wonder, for the first few minutes, if I've become numb to the intended effect of witnessing such gruesome and upsetting footage. The latest entry in the long line of warzone documentaries, 20 Days in Mariupol, not only lands with its intended impact; it also powerfully and heartbreakingly questions what good the efforts of frontline journalists are if these conflicts are only worsening. It further examines whether the risks and sacrifices taken by those who put their lives on the line to ensure the world doesn't turn a blind eye to the terrors of warfare are worth it if much of the public is going to just dismiss these visual records as "fake news."

Director Mstyslav Chernov, a Ukrainian filmmaker, novelist, war correspondent, and photojournalist with an impressive track record, presents his first-person account of the twenty days he spent with his colleagues from the Associated Press in the besieged city of Mariupol after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin's escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War, which started in 2014, has become the largest attack on a European country since World War II. This picture's gripping ground-level account of living in a city where bombs explode, buildings collapse, and tanks roll in to blast apart hospitals, homes, and businesses is narrated dispassionately by Chernov, who also interviews several Mariupol residents. Sometimes, the people he speaks with berate him for sticking his intrusive camera in their faces at moments of such high stress and trauma. Sometimes, they thank him profusely and encourage him to film the dead bodies of their loved ones so that "the world will see what is being done.

One of the things that makes this compelling film different from similar documentaries is its focus on the work of journalists. Trapped in the besieged city, these men and women struggle to do the important work of documenting the war's atrocities and try to find ways to upload their footage and report from a place with little power or WiFi signal. We observe the real-time deaths of many adults, children, and babies. Often, severely injured casualties are on their way to the fewer and fewer hospital beds in the city, where we know any surgery is going to be done without anesthetic or pain medications, as most of those drugs were quickly used up or destroyed in the first few days of the attack. We witness mass burials and desperate people committing desperate acts. Notably, we see some of these events play out twice: first when Chernov films them and then again when AP news organizations worldwide broadcast his footage. I've never seen a film present this type of reporting so powerfully. We take for granted the type of access 20 Days in Mariupol showcases. And we, along with Chernov, wonder if these images are doing enough to corroborate the accounts of imprecise violence that Putin and other aggressors deny.

The twenty-day structure is set up by its title and title cards that delineate the segments of this tightly edited 94-minute feature. We're told it took 86 days for Mariupol to fall, and this picture covers just the first three weeks of the Russian invasion—which started almost two years ago now. We know that most of the world was on the side of Ukraine when Putin's assault began, and much of that support unquestionably came as a direct result of journalists and civilians reporting from the cities being destroyed. But will that support last? Have we all started to become numb to the power of these images? How much of the population is influenced by the aggressors and interested parties' erroneous claims that footage of this sort is all staged for propaganda purposes? Chernov's brave film wrestles with these questions.

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The latest entry in the long line of twenty-first-century warzone documentaries is a gripping first-person account of the first 20 days of Puttin's escalation of the Russian war with Ukraine by AP photojournalist Mstyslav Chernov that wrestles with existential questions many films of this type avoid.