It’s been less than a year since Russia invaded Ukraine, severely escalating a conflict that had already been going on for eight years. Yet the constant churning of the news cycle somehow makes that crisis seem older, less urgent — a dulling of concern by some US conservatives’ desire to end aid, as if we’ve done “enough” despite all the ongoing wars and associated humanitarianism. Necessity offered a refresher on the outrage on the part of Ukrainians in “20 Days in Mariupol,” a gritty, nerve-wracking piece of on-the-ground reportage by a small team of Associated Press correspondents.
These journos traveled to the titular port city last February 24, the day Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” in “self-defense,” as if Ukraine were attacking Russia rather than the other way around. They assumed that this key port, only 30 miles from the enemy border, would be a primary objective. This assumption was correct: within hours the bombs began to fall.
An extraordinary first-hand record of civilians under siege, Mstyslav Chernov’s documentary chronicles the time he and his crew spent there before escaping. The appalling injustice of the situation is reinforced by our successive Russian leaders’ flat denial that civilians are being targeted, even as we spend these 90-odd minutes witnessing the charred ruins of residential areas, apartment buildings, hospitals and more. Following its Sundance premiere, the film was slated for theatrical release later in the year by PBS Distribution, followed by a Frontline PBS broadcast.
Though rarely spied onscreen, Chernov (who shoots most of the footage here), field producer Vasilisa Stepanenko and still photographer Evgeny Maloletka are the local AP journalists cited as “we” in the director’s English voiceover. When they arrived on the 24th, “the city looked normal” – as it had in 2014, when they visited during an unsuccessful Russian attempt to seize the strategic position. Encountering a hysterical elderly woman in a remote area, they tell her to go home, thinking she will be safe there. Later, he was found alive, but his house was destroyed.
In the initial attack, martial law was imposed, and many chose to withdraw while they still could. With few bomb shelters available, people risk airstrikes and missiles destroying not only infrastructure and military posts, but civilian centers as well. Electricity, telephone and internet access, fire stations, hospitals and more are systematically taken. Meanwhile, hundreds of casualties crowd emergency medical facilities – or are left as bodies on the streets, eventually placed in mass graves for lack of other options.
The deliberate cutoff of external communication creates panic and confusion in isolation. Some residents even feel they are being hit by Ukrainian “friendly fire” (as opposed to Russian Federation forces), or to take out their frustration on the rest of the journalists, who have their own problems getting their reports out. But most are happy to have at least some record of their plight for the world to see.
The impact of that coverage comes to life in “20 Days in Mariupol” when the footage we’ve already seen is restored to its original context, now as short clips woven into breaking-news broadcasts around the world. While these glimpses were powerful to international audiences, Chernov does not spare the more brutally sustained moments of his documentary. “Show this child’s eyes to Putin,” screams a furious doctor as a four-year-old child dies on the operating table from shelling. Elsewhere, a teenager playing football outside a school died when a bomb ripped through his leg.
“It’s painful to watch. But it is of course It will be painful to watch,” Chernov said. As “this tragic virus of destruction” hollows out the city, visual evidence of it has sparked worldwide outrage, with Russian state media claiming the images are “fake news,” professional actors in the act of “information terrorism.” With “completely staged.” If so, Hollywood’s CGI experts are no match for these impressive drone shots of an apocalyptic cityscape.
There’s no political analysis or advice here, just a chasteningly up-close look at the toll of modern warfare on a population. “What have we done to deserve this? What is wrong with these people?” A mother asks – questions that have no answers. Mariupol fell to Russia on the 86th, and the filmmakers were extremely fortunate to get out weeks earlier, as Russian tanks had already claimed the area they were hiding in (and the last functioning hospital surrounded it).
It’s murky but essential viewing, expertly edited by Chernov, the video technology rendering his camerawork uncomfortably bright and sharp where not too long ago we were spared a bit of horror by low image clarity. Adding discreet notes of suspense is Jordan Dykstra’s original score. Framed by onscreen markers of days gone by, this non-fiction feature may not have a simple narrative arc, but the director’s unprecedented first-person narration and the intensity of the compiled war-crime evidence make it haunting nonetheless.