It’s been less than a year since Russia invaded Ukraine, drastically escalating a conflict that had already been in progress for eight years. Yet the constant churn of the news cycle somehow makes that crisis seem older, less urgent — a dulling of concern underlined by some U.S. conservatives’ desire to halt aid, as if we’ve already “done enough” despite all ongoing warfare and related humanitarian exigencies. Offering a refresher in outrage on Ukrainians’ behalf is “20 Days in Mariupol,” a grim, nerve-jangling piece of on-the-ground reportage by a small team of Associated Press correspondents.
Those journos traveled to the port city of the title last February 24, the day Vladimir Putin announced a “Special Military Operation” in “self-defense,” as if Ukraine was attacking Russia rather than the other way round. They assumed this key port, just 30 miles from the enemy border, would be an early objective. That hunch was correct: Within hours, bombs began to fall.
A strikingly immediate record of citizens under siege, Mstyslav Chernov’s documentary chronicles the period he and his crew spent there before fleeing. The grotesque injustice of the situation is reinforced by our periodically hearing Russian leaders’ flat denials that civilians are being targeted, even as we spend these 90-odd minutes witnessing residential areas, apartment buildings, hospitals and more reduced to charred ruins. Following its Sundance premiere, the film is slated for theatrical release by PBS Distribution later in the year, then Frontline PBS broadcast.
Though seldom spied onscreen, Chernov (who shot most of the footage here), field producer Vasilisa Stepanenko and still photographer Evgeniy Maloletka are the local AP journalists cited as “we” in the director’s English voiceover. When they arrive on the 24th, “the city looks normal” — as it had in 2014, when they’d visited during an unsuccessful prior Russian attempt at seizing the strategic location. Encountering a hysterical older woman in an outlying area, they tell her to go home, thinking she’ll be safe there. Later, she’s found alive, but her house has been destroyed.
In the initial onslaught, martial law is imposed, and many choose to evacuate while they still can. With few bomb shelters available, people huddle in basements as air strikes and missiles lay waste not just to infrastructure and military posts, but civilian hubs. Electricity, telephone and internet access, fire stations, hospitals and more are systematically taken out. Meanwhile, hundreds of casualties crowd the few emergency medical facilities left — or are left as corpses on the streets, eventually put in mass graves for lack of other options.
The deliberate cutoff of outside communication stirs panic and confusion in isolation. Some residents even think they’re being attacked by Ukrainian “friendly fire” (as opposed to Russian Federation forces), or take their frustrations out on the remaining journalists, who have their own problems getting their reportage out. But most are glad that at least some record of their plight will be seen by the world.
The impact of that coverage is made vivid in “20 Days in Mariupol” when footage we’ve already seen in its original context is reprised, now as brief clips woven into breaking-news broadcasts around the world. Powerful as those glimpses were to international viewers, Chernov doesn’t spare his documentary more brutally sustained moments. As a four-year-old dies on the operating table from shelling wounds, a furious doctor cries, ““Show that Putin bastard the eyes of this child.” Elsewhere, a teen playing soccer outside a school dies when a bomb tears his legs off.
“This is painful to watch. But it must be painful to watch,” Chernov says. As “this sadistic virus of destruction” hollows out the city, its visual evidence stirring global indignation, Russian state media is seen claiming those images are “fake news,” “fully staged” with professional actors in acts of “information terrorism.” If that were the case, Hollywood’s CGI experts couldn’t match these impressive drone shots of an apocalyptic cityscape.
There’s no political analysis or sermonizing here, just a punishingly up-close look at the toll of modern warfare on a population. “What did we do to deserve this? What are these people guilty of?” a mother asks — questions to which there can be no answer. Mariupol fell to Russia on Day 86, and the filmmakers were exceedingly lucky to get out weeks earlier, as Russian tanks had already claimed the area they were hiding in (and the last functioning hospital it encompassed).
This is bleak but essential viewing, deftly edited by Chernov, video technology rendering his camerawork discomfitingly bright and sharp where not long ago we might have been spared a degree of horror by lesser image clarity. Adding discreet notes of suspense is Jordan Dykstra’s original score. Structured by onscreen markers of the days passed, this nonfiction feature may not have a simple narrative arc, but the director’s unpretentious first-person narration and the intensity of the war-crimes evidence compiled make it riveting nonetheless.