20 Days In Mariupol |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Mstyslav Chernov, Ukraine, 2023, 95 mins

Cast: n/a

Review by Ben Thomas

20 Days In Mariupol, directed by Mstyslav Chernov, is a direct and unwavering documentation of the atrocities committed by Russian forces in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol during the first twenty days of the siege in 2022.

Chernov makes a directorial decision to show everything—the bombings, the hospitals, the open graves—and is encouraged to keep filming by the suffering residents and community leaders in the footage. Even in the midst of bombings, the people are aware of the power of the camera, and the extent to which Chernov feels responsibility towards this optimism forms the extent of the film’s self-reflectiveness. 20 Days In Mariupol is a near impossible work of grave suffering.

As the film opens, the first person Chernov speaks to is a lady. She is looking for her son. Chernov reassures her and encourages her to go back inside as the Russians are not targeting civilians. Moments later, we are shown images of a burnt out building with people hurling possessions and rubble out of the window. Chernov, through voice over, admits he was incorrect about the Russian attacks. The rules of conflict do not apply here. Soon, no rules will apply here. We watch as everything the residents once knew to be true—shelter, healthcare, access to food and water—is stripped from them: and for what? The film asks.

20 Days In Mariupol is visceral and startling as the film captures the genuine fear and hysteria that arrives with an invasion. It is impossible to adjust to hearing the sounds of bombing and screaming; the huge vibrations and shaking camera as Chernov sprints frantically up and down dilapidated staircases and through crowded hospital corridors. Certain moments in the film, the bombing of a maternity ward, an old man walking for four hours through machine gun fire, the slow turning of a tank turret towards a building Chernov is filming from, are utterly indelible. The footage is suffocating and claustrophobic: it is painful to watch but even more painful to live.

What also shines through, partly due to the film’s almost molecular proximity, is the community leadership and human spirit. Chernov talks about war as being like an X-Ray machine, revealing what’s inside of human beings: the good, the bad and the ugly. The film highlights doctors, nurses and community police officers dutifully and miraculously continuing their work, doing whatever necessary to preserve as much life as possible to the highest standard possible. Vladimir, a local officer, is a touch point for the film and he encourages Chernov to continue filming, believing the footage of the maternity ward bombing might change the course of the war. He, along with countless others, are heartstopping and tear-inducing in their courage and endurance.

The film provides some subtle analysis of the information war, and the relationship between footage and narrative. It uses news reports from around the world to demonstrate the surreal loss of control that Chernov experiences every time he sends across his encrypted files. There is an acknowledgment of how people add their own language, narrative and story to images, and this includes the Russian government’s determination to drive home how his filmed reality is fake and staged. But, for the majority of the film, we are tethered to the increasingly helpless Mariupol people, who lose their homes, their businesses, their friends and their families as a result of the senseless acts of aggression. The footage is only separated by brief intertitles, stating which day it is, which is the only respite.

20 Days In Mariupol is a brutal and harrowing documentary that depicts the violence, trauma and suffering of the siege of Mariupol in an unfiltered and horrifying way. The film, voice over aside, lets the images speak volumes and more. It is impossible to fathom the terror that the Ukrainian people must have felt, and are still feeling, but 20 Days In Mariupol uses the medium of film as effectively as conceivably possible to immerse an audience in one crucial locality in the wider conflict. 20 Days In Mariupol closes with the information that the city fell on day 86 of the siege; imagining the 66 days after the conclusion of the film, given the state we leave the city in, is nightmarish.

20 Days In Mariupol, directed by Mstyslav Chernov, had its UK premiere last Wednesday at Sheffield Documentary Festival.

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