Review: ’20 Days in Mariupol,’ a disturbing but necessary documentary chronicling the first month of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine

July 16, 2023

by Carla Hay

Iryna Kalinina (center) with emergency workers and police in “20 Days in Mariupol” (Photo by Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo/PBS Distribution)

“20 Days in Mariupol”

Directed by Mstyslav Chernov

Ukrainian and Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in Mariupol, Ukraine, from February to March 2022, the documentary film “20 Days in Mariupol” features an all-white group of people who were affected by the Russian invasion war that began that year.

Culture Clash: People who remained in Mariupol during this time were trapped, with their supplies to water, food and electricity cut off, as Russian invaders bombed the city and killed thousands of people.

Culture Audience: “20 Days in Mariupol” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in watching a documentary about what happened inside of Mariupol, which was targeted for some of the worst violence, but sensitive viewers should know that the documentary has graphic scenes of people (including children) dying during medical care.

People at a shelter in Mariupol, Ukraine, in “20 Days in Mariupol” (Photo by Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo/PBS Distribution)

Brutal, harrowing and courageous, “20 Days in Mariupol” is one of the most important documentaries of the year. It’s a disturbing but necessary chronicle of the death, pain and resilience of Ukrainian people under attack by Russia invaders in 2022. “20 Days in Mariupol” which was filmed cinéma vérité style, does not gloss over the horrors of this war, beginning when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. However, “20 Days in Mariupol” has enough sensitivity not to show the faces of the people who died in front of the cameras or the faces of the dead people whose bodies were strewn in various locations.

Directed and narrated by Ukrainian video journalist Mstyslav Chernov, “20 Days in Mariupol,” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the audience award for World Cinema Documentary—one of several awards that this documentary has won. The 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service went to members of the “20 Days in Mariupol” team, including Chernov, still photographer Evgeniy Maloletka, field producer Vasilisa Stepanenko and correspondent Lori Hinnant. “20 Days in Mariupol” is the feature-length directorial debut of Chernov, who works for the non-profit news company Associated Press, which helped fund the making of this documentary. Jordan Dykstra’s musical score and Michelle Mizner’s editing express the sense of urgency and dread that can be felt throughout the movie.

As the documentary’s title describes, “20 Days in Mariupol” takes viewers inside the war zone for the first 20 days of the invasion. Chernov, who was accompanied by Maloletka, had the choice to flee the increasingly under-siege Ukraine, which is a choice that many other journalists did during this period of time. However, Chernov (who is from Kharkiv, Ukraine) and his team not only decided to stay, but they also went to Mariupol, which they suspected would one of the main targets of the Russian invaders.

Chernov says in voiceover narration at the beginning of the documentary: “When we realized the invasion was imminent, we decided to go to Mariupol. We were sure it would be one of the main targets. But we could never imagine the scale, and that the whole country would be under attack.” The first day of the documentary’s 20-day chronicle began on February 24, 2022. Chernov says in the documentary that about one hour after he and his crew arrived in Mariupol, the city was under a bomb attack.

Before the Russian invasion, Mariupol’s population consisted of nearly 426,000 people in January 2022. After the war, Mariupol’s population decreased to less than 100,000 people. (Both statistics were provided by the State Statistics Committee of Ukraine.) Most of the people who left Mariupol evacuated, but a still-unclear number of people died in Mariupol, as well as in many other parts of Ukraine.

In “20 Days in Mariupol,” Chernov makes a voiceover comment that has become one of his most quoted comments of the movie: “Someone once told me, ‘Wars don’t start with explosions. They start with silence.'” This documentary serves as a collective voice of the people who suffered through these traumas and those who didn’t live to tell their stories. Throughout the documentary, various Ukrainian people tell Chernov and his crew they want what’s happening to be filmed so that the world can see the atrocities and suffering, or they hope that the footage will be seen by loved ones who are wondering who’s still alive.

Some of the video footage and still photos seen in “20 Days in Mariupol” were used by news outlets such as Associated Press, which syndicates content to other media outlets. After the original footage is shown in the documentary, some of it is shown as news clips that got televised by several media outlets, such as CBS News, ITV and MSNBC. One of the more memorable news clips that Chernov and his team had that was shown around the world was an infuriated and frustrated doctor, who had just witnessed a 4-year-old girl die from bomb injuries on a medical table, despite his and his medical team’s best efforts to save her. The doctor says to the camera, “Show this [Russian president Vladimir] Putin bastard the eyes of this child!”

Part of the documentary explains how Chernov sometimes had to travel miles to find the nearest working electrical outlet, in order to send the footage. When cell phone service wasn’t available, Chernov and his team had to communicate by satellite phone. Chernov says in the documentary that he worried about his own daughters, who had to be evacuated.

Food, water, and electricity became scarce. Internet service was cut off. Russian soldiers blocked the borders. After a certain period of time, even if people wanted to escape from Mariupol, they couldn’t because they were trapped in a hellish war zone. The way that Chernov and his team escaped is detailed toward the end of the documentary.

Not everyone was grateful to see journalists in their midst. During one of the early days of filming, when people were still able to evacuate from Mariupol, an angry middle-aged man, who is in the midst of evacuating, walks past the documentary crew and snarls, “Fuck you, prostitutes!” A middle-aged woman, who is distraught over having to flee from her home, refuses to say her name when she’s asked, and she very openly express her disgust that cameras are filming her. In another part of the movie, Ukrainian soldiers defensively tell the camera crew not to film them.

Chernov says in a voiceover: “I understand their anger. Their country is being attacked. It’s our country too. And we have to tell its story.” Almost everyone shown in the movie is not identified by name. They don’t have to be, because the powerful message of this documentary is that what happened to the people of Ukraine in 2022 can happen to almost anyone in the world whose country is ruthlessly invaded by outside forces.

The most heartbreaking aspects of “20 Days in Mariupol” are the death scenes. Some people, including children, are shown dying while receiving medical treatment in overcrowded, understaffed emergency centers that are running dangerously low on medicine. Their loved ones’ anguished reactions to these deaths will be burned into the memories of people who watch “20 Days in Mariupol.”

In addition, there are scenes of bodies being dumped into makeshift, unmarked mass graves. One of the men who is tasked with this awful and unwanted activity says he can’t talk about what it feels like because he knows he will start crying. The gravediggers and body disposal people wear masks, but you can see in their eyes that the masks can’t filter out the overwhelming stench of death and decomposition.

Countless people who’ve lost their homes are seen wandering around in a daze, crying out in anguish, or huddling in fear and uncertainty in shelters. Some are involuntarily separated from loved ones, while others already know that some of their loved ones are dead. A girl who’s about 5 or 6 years old who’s in a shelter tearfully says of this living nightmare: “I don’t want to die. I want it to end soon.” At a shelter that used to be a sports/athletic center, mirrors are taped over to lessen the impact in case a bomb shatters the glass.

Even though Chernov says in the documentary that he and his team did not stay in one location for too long, the documentary gives a few updates on people he met or saw during this ordeal. Early in the documentary, after the bombing started, some people (including Chernov) mistakenly believed that civilians wouldn’t be attacked. A middle-aged woman is seen wailing on a street because she says her son hasn’t come home from work.

The woman is afraid to go back to her house because she thinks it will be bombed. Chernov tries to comfort the woman and tells her it would be best for her to go back home, in case her son will look for her there. Chernov assures her that it will be safer for her to be at home instead of walking around outside.

“I was wrong,” Chernov says bluntly in a voiceover. Bombs ended up destroying the neighborhood where the woman lived. Later, Chernov sees the woman at a shelter and says in a voiceover that he was relieved that she was still alive and that he told her he was sorry for his error in judgment. Chernov says he was surprised at how forgiving she was. (The documentary doesn’t say if this woman ever reunited with her son.)

A particularly gut-wrenching part of “20 Days in Mariupol” is how it shows the evacuation of a maternity ward. Some of the vulnerable, pregnant women are in labor. A 32-year-old pregnant woman named Iryna Kalinina, who has been severely injured, is one of the expectant mothers who is rushed out of the maternity ward to a location that’s not equipped to handle childbirths. What happened to her is later revealed in the documentary.

As time goes on, the death rate rises, and survivors get more desperate. People start looting stores, although some of the stolen items, such as electronics, will eventually become useless when electricity is virtually cut off in Mariupol. A store owner named Natasha, who appears to be in her 30s, yells at people who are openly stealing things from her general merchandise store, which has already been destroyed by bomb damage. Anyone with enough life experience can see that it’s not the loss of material things that’s upsetting her but the fact that her entire life has been turned upside down.

In the voiceover narration, Chernov (who has many years of experience as a war correspondent) says a doctor once told him: “War is like an X-ray” that can expose who people really are inside. “Good people become better. Bad people become worse.” Amid all the madness and mayhem, there is still plenty of kindness and generosity shown in this movie. These examples include the heroes who try to save people lives; survivors who share food, shelter, and other resources with strangers; and even the people who didn’t abandon their pets and kept them during this hellish experience.

“20 Days in Mariupol” is a documentary that won’t be forgotten by anyone who sees it, and it should not be overlooked by anyone who cares about humanity. Director/narrator Chernov gives an unflinchingly honest viewpoint that is specific yet universal. Although “20 Days in Mariupol” shows many people in moments of despair, none of it is exploitative. “20 Days in Mariupol” is not only a vital history lesson but it is also an urgent reminder that although damage done by war cannot be erased, compassion for others is not defined by national boundaries.

PBS Distribution released “20 Days in Mariupol” in New York City on July 14, 2023. The movie will be released in Los Angeles and San Francisco on July 21, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cities in subsequent weeks. The PBS series “Frontline” will televise the documentary on a date to be announced.

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