Arts movie review

20 Days in Mariupol is a harrowing account of Ukrainian suffering at the hands of Russia

Collecting the firsthand footage of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mstyslav Chernov during the Russian invasion of Mariupol and the hellscape that followed


20 Days in Mariupol 

Directed by Mstyslav Chernov

Screenplay by Mstyslav Chernov

NR. In select theaters, at MIT Sloan February 20, and streaming on PBS.


If you're like me and the vast majority of young people, you don't watch television news at all, and are reliant on the highly personalized algorithms of TikTok and Twitter more than the standardized work of traditional journalists for updates about current events. There's much to be said on both sides about the diminished role of mainstream media, but sometimes a story is so complex, visceral, and challenging that it demands a professional, human hand to properly do the coverage justice. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is one such story, and Associated Press correspondent Mstyslav Chernov is just the professional to rise to the occasion. His new Oscar-nominated documentary, 20 Days in Mariupol, is the perfect vessel for capturing Chernov's gripping work for those of us, like me, who never saw it live on TV. 

The film covers the siege of Mariupol, which began two years ago this week. A strategic asset due to its situation along the Sea of Azov, proximity to Russia, and industrial output, Mariupol and its half a million people were one of Russia’s first targets. Immediately a dangerous warzone due to significant bombing, nearly every international journalist was evacuated in the days leading up to the invasion, with the rest getting out in the first several hours. However, Chernov and his team stayed in the bombarded city for as long as possible, capturing footage, interviewing residents, and struggling to stay alive themselves. 

Russia’s overwhelming aggression turns Mariupol — once a bustling cultural center and emerging hub of innovation — almost immediately into a hellscape, with each scene more awful than the last. On Day 3, a CrossFit gym, the most quotidian and Western of settings, has been transformed into a refugee site where families practically sleep on top of each other for lack of room. Before Day 7, the camera is pulled into a hospital room where doctors try, and fail, to resuscitate a baby who's been killed by Russian shelling. The next day, the last humanitarian routes out of the city are shut off. A maternity hospital is bombed. Day 14 brings an interview with workers at a mass grave site, along with graphic footage of civilian corpses. Later, the Russians having infiltrated the city, a sniper sets up across from a hospital, firing indiscriminately. Every night brings explosions and sirens. 

At each turn, the AP team is at the epicenter of violence, trying their best to support emergency technicians, soldiers, and everyday citizens by documenting the atrocities. With years of training, they seem to have a sixth sense on where to be and how to get there, building immediate trust with the fellow warzone inhabitants. Camerawork is intrepid and insightful, as are many of the interviews, which succeed in saying something when there's nothing really to say. And although the team does capture small glimmers of hope or sarcastic humor, this just isn't that kind of movie. There's no joy in Mariupol, and while there is certainly humanity, the filmmakers and journalists behind the camera are obligated to direct their immense skills to show the grim and unrelenting reality. As we learn by the final shot, the city falls under Russian control just two months after Chernov successfully escapes. 

But while 20 Days in Mariupol demands a viewing, the film occasionally verges on being self-congratulatory for its director. Chernov is already highly decorated for his coverage of the Donbas war, Syrian civil war, and now the Russian invasion of Ukraine, for which he's received the Pulitzer Prize and a host of other media industry accolades. Thus, several directorial decisions feel a little extravagant. For example, the documentary repeatedly first shows Chernov's footage shot during a given day of the invasion, before showing the same footage in a news-clip highlight reel to cap off the “Day” in movie time. (In one instance, we see an expectant mother being carried on a stretcher after being hit by a bomb during the day’s footage, before seeing it again shown on MSNBC and ABC after that day’s coverage comes to a close). 

Seeing American media talking heads discussing what we had seen "firsthand" just minutes prior not only takes the viewer out of the immersive horrors of Mariupol on the ground, but also feels like Chernov collating a resume portfolio. Another example: while Chernov's narration describes his own guilt in "abandoning" the city, he isn't loath to include clips of soldiers and doctors insisting that they're not the "real" heroes, Chernov is. While nice sentiments, the quotes' inclusion again feel slightly self-serving.

Chernov has never made a movie before and is extremely personally connected to the subject matter in his debut, so it's impossible to fault him for making imperfect decisions about how to approach his own coverage of the fall of Mariupol and the broader war. The missteps are minor compared to the unquestionable success of the broader film. 

I saw the film last week at a screening hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School Carr Center for Human Rights, followed by a Q&A discussion with a Ukrainian Harvard student who lived in Mariupol and survived the siege. Hearing her harrowing stories, feeling her father's sweatshirt where a bullet had pierced through, and holding a piece of bomb shrapnel that exploded across the street from her apartment brought to life the nauseating horrors of the film. (Unsurprisingly, she abstained from sitting through the screening.) 

Years after the documentary was filmed, the war rages on. While 10 million Ukrainians have fled the country (nearly 25% of the population), tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers have been killed, American politicians still debate the validity of Russia's invasion and the need for international aid to Ukraine. 20 Days in Mariupol is a critical, grounding voice for what this war actually looks like, and is moreover a compelling, haunting film.