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Sundance 2023 Review: 20 Days in Mariupol – “The heartbreaking cost of war”

A still from 20 Days in Mariupol by Mstyslav Chernov, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka.

When the war in Ukraine started, I remember it was every headline and on every news station 24/7.  I was glued to the television, horrified at what I was seeing.  Since then, news story fatigue has set in.  After a year of war, Ukraine’s plight is now relegated to a page further back in the paper, or a television segment later on in the evening.  The news cycle moves on, just as it does with every conflict, only to briefly return the war to the forefront when something they deem significant occurs.

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So hopefully then 20 Days in Mariupol may just serve as a tragic reminder that the people of Ukraine are still suffering under the merciless punishment Vladimir Putin has unleashed on their country.  Filmmaker and journalist Mstyslav Chernov, along with his colleagues Evgeniy Maloletka and Vasilisa Stepanenko provide a first hand account of the first twenty days of war as they become the only international journalists left in the strategic port town of Mariupol.  

“Wars don’t start with explosions, they start with silence,” Chernov narrates.  But an hour after they arrive in this city, bombs start to go off just outside its borders.  Citizens are terrified, heading to bomb shelters, little more than basements, with their children and their pets.  A lady stops Chernov in the streets to ask where she should go.  He tells her to go home as there is little indication Russia will hit civilian homes.  Later, we see her house burning.  We see children crying, saying they are scared to die.  A dead cat lays in the street, one more reminder that homes are being targeted, that all life falls victim to war.

By day three, a quarter of Mariupol’s citizens have left, some of those who stay find shelter in a gym.  They put tape on the mirrors of the walls so there are fewer fragments created when bombs fall.  While the soldiers don’t really want to be filmed, the doctors of the hospital in which Chernov and his team find shelter encourage it.  “Show this to Putin,” shouts one, wanting the film as evidence of what the Russian leader is doing to civilians.  They are dying, children are dying, doctors are sobbing, bodies are mounting.  Chernov keeps filming.  

Chernov doesn’t need his film to be terribly polished, it plays more as a journal of his time in the besieged city, going day by day as the horrors mount.  It is exactly as he saw it, the truth of war.  While they have trouble eventually getting internet connections to get their footage out, with help they find a spot where they can slowly upload.  They begin informing the world of the atrocities of war on news channels.  These images reached all of us, including the Kremlin who of course denied their legitimacy, twisting their footage into propaganda.  

But Chernov’s work speaks for itself.  And while he and his team find themselves in life threatening situations before finally needing to flee the city, they are not telling this story for recognition’s sake.  Assembling this footage as a documentary comes from a need to tell their country’s story, a need to hold Russia responsible.  This film is horrifying and harrowing.  It transports you right into the middle of a war zone to behold all the pain that brings.  Innocent people dead, hospitals bombed, apartments burning, lives and livelihoods destroyed.  

“This is painful to watch.  It must be painful,” Chernov says.  And he’s right.  20 Days of Mariupol will often test your stamina to observe the heartbreaking cost of war.  But, it is necessary.  We are all now witnesses.  

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