Prepare for unshakable images—the destruction of Mariupol and its inhabitants. We are witnessing firsthand footage of the Russian invasion thanks to Ukrainian war correspondent Mstyslav Chernov and his team. 20 Days in Mariupol shows the horror the remaining inhabitants experienced, told by courageous doctors and other volunteers who fought for Ukrainian lives in the ruins.
The film begins with a green tank in the street with a white painted «Z» on the side, filmed from a window above. «Film, Film», someone is shouting. The tank is bumping into and moving a parked yellow bus. «This is the first time I saw «Z», the Russian sign of war. The hospital is surrounded. Dozens of doctors, hundreds of patients, and us». The director and cameraman, Chernov, has a voiceover during the film. «I have no illusions about what will happen if the Russians capture us», continues the calm voice when he is filming the Russian tank cannon pointing at the building he is filming from.
«I had to document what was happening, and I am going back again», says Chernov after the European Premiere at the film festival CPH:DOX, following a never-ending standing ovation. Chernov explained how the team struggled to get the footage out of Mariupol as a witness to the world and to prevent misinformation and propaganda. The film shows how difficult it is when there are no signals from the satellites and no electricity. But the team succeeded just in time. The vital footage was shown on TV worldwide, but the Russians claimed it was manipulated.
«I have no illusions about what will happen if the Russians capture us»
But the horrifying visuals of men carrying a stretcher with a pregnant woman with a crushed pelvis, the doctors fighting to save a little girl, sadly unsuccessful, and the fear and desperation when the Russian tanks are entering the city has not been questioned for its authenticity by the world society. Neither has the footage of the collection of dead bodies in a basement where we witness the inhabitants digging a ditch before they can bury their loved ones in a mass grave. And in the meantime, the overworked and exhausted doctors, nurses, and helpers are fighting to save lives with few painkillers and other medicines left.
As there are no bomb shelters in the city, people will hide in the basements of apartment buildings. Some are trying to calm their kin by telling them everything is fine. But we know they are not safe in the city, and as an audience, you know this will not be a happy ending.
I must admit that I hoped the ending was near during the film. Not because it was too long and uninteresting. Exactly the opposite. The documentation was unbearable, and I felt so ashamed that this is going on in 2023. But what the team captured and transformed into a film documenting what is now referred to as war crimes is incredibly brave and deserves everyone’s attention. Mstyslav Chernov and his team are risking their lives by insisting on documenting their country’s destruction and suffering. And Chernov says, «I am willing to give my life for it.»
Chernov was born in 1985 and is an acclaimed war correspondent. He covered the war in Donbas, the civil war in Syria, the battle in Mosul, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He received numerous awards, among others Deutsche Welles Freedom of Speech Award. 20 Days in Mariupol World-premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January 2023 and won the Audience Award.
The Russian invasion of Mariupol started on March 10th, 2022. Mariupol is a seaport located nearby the Sea of Azov and has a port. A Russian annexe means a direct route between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula. Furthermore, Mariupol is situated in the Donetsk region consisting of one of the two breakaway republics that Russia recognizes—giving it symbolic value.