20 Days in Mariupol is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
There was to be a Q&A with the director after the movie. I have been to several such screenings in Chicago, and usually the audience—knowing the filmmaker is in the house—breaks into applause when the credits come up, if only out of courtesy. But this time—this past Tuesday night, at the Gene Siskel Film Center—we all, to a person, just sat in stunned silence in the mercifully dark theater as we watched the credits roll on 20 Days in Mariupol.
(I glanced at the woman who sat next to me. I didn't know her, but she had wept quietly throughout the entire movie. She was weeping still, and I don't think she was alone.)
Only when the credits were over, and the lights came up, and the director was introduced, did we finally applaud—but even then the sound was tentative, uncertain, slow to build and never to crest. A standing ovation, too, is usually customary, but it seemed to take a moment for anyone to think of it. A few people stood, and then a few more, and then we all were standing and clapping, but it felt strange, almost perfunctory, out of sync and out of place.
Applause is usually, by definition, enthusiastic. It is a grateful, purely joyful sound. It's like waves of love coming over the footlights and wrapping you up, Eve Harrington says of applause, in All About Eve. But this was something different. There was gratitude, to be sure, but enthusiasm would have been out of place, and joy would have been a violation. I suspect we knew, deep down, that we couldn't wrap the filmmaker up in anything so useless as a fan's love, and so we did not presume to try.
So our response felt inadequate. But I suspect, too, that Mstyslav Chernov is used to such measured, muted, hopelessly inarticulate reactions to his extraordinary documentary. I imagine he not only understands them, but knows that they are a sign that his film has succeeded, not that it has failed.
"I want to thank you for coming, and for not turning away," was what Chernov said to the audience, before he said anything else. "I know it is not easy."
Mariupol is a city on the southeastern edge of Ukraine, just 30 miles from the Russian border. It was home to some 430,000 people, but that was before Vladimir Putin's Russian troops invaded in February of 2022.
Associated Press video journalist Mstyslav Chernov had covered wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Nagorno-Karabakh, but he grew up just a few hours north of Mariupol, and he knew the city—an eastern port on the Sea of Azov—would be an early and desirable target in Vladimir Putin's imminent invasion. So he and two AP colleagues (and fellow Ukrainians) Evgeniy Maloletka, a still photographer, and field producer Vasilisa Stepanenko, headed for Mariupol, arriving in the city the evening of February 23. Just a few hours later—in the eerie early hours of the 24th, or what would become Day One—the war began. ("Wars don't start with explosions," Chernov says, in 20 Days in Mariupol. "They start with silence.")
Within a few days, Chernov's AP team would be the only international journalists left in the city, the outside world's only witnesses to the horrors and atrocities that occurred during the first three weeks of Putin's relentless siege on the city. The 95 minutes of 20 Days in Mariupol are distilled from more than 25 hours of footage they shot. It is not an historical account of troop movements and battles. (There is no real discussion of the military situation, and we see very few soldiers on either side of the conflict.) Nor is it a found-footage action movie, full of explosions and firefights. (Chernov does not aggrandize the very real danger he and his team were constantly in: in fact, we barely even glimpse the journalists.)
Instead, 20 Days in Mariupol immerses us in the immediate experience of the people on the ground, for whom—as the internet and cell phones were cut off—information was quickly impossible to come by. They knew only that their world had suddenly erupted into chaos and destruction and death, and the film is a chronicle of the immediate aftermaths of a series of tragedies and atrocities.
It is, as Chernov admits, not easy to watch. We are there as old women cry in the ruins of their homes. We are there in overcrowded basements where mothers huddle terrified with their surviving children as the sound of bombs get closer. We are there in crowded hospital corridors as fathers wail uncontrollably at the deaths of their teen-age sons, blown up while playing soccer in the park. We are there as a worker dumps body after body into one of many mass graves. (He apologetically explains that he cannot be interviewed. "If I start talking, I'll start to cry," he says. "And then I won't be able to talk.") We are there when hysterical young parents rush an 8-month-old boy into the emergency room, and we are there to witness their grief when doctors try, and fail, to save his life. We are there as a harried, overworked, furiously angry doctor—short on antibiotics, short on painkillers, short on temper, short on everything— works on a 4-year-old girl. ("It's good the press are here," he barks, as he works. "Film how these motherfuckers are killing children. Show that Putin bastard the eyes of this child.") And we are there in the terrible silence of the empty operating room afterwards, as the little girl's body lies still on the table, only partially covered by the shroud of her pink and yellow coat.
Nothing in 20 Days of Mariupol is more graphic than the average PG-13 movie—in fact, the worst wounds and glimpses of nude body parts are blurred. But it is all real, and the people are real, and the pain is real, and that makes this short documentary one of the hardest experiences I have ever had in a movie theater. In one of the most harrowing extended sequences, we witness the aftermath of a maternity ward bombing. Neo-natal incubators lie in the rubble as wounded pregnant women and their children are evacuated to another hospital. We see one heavily pregnant woman being carried out on a stretcher; later, we will hear from the nurse who treated her—in chillingly numb, matter-of-fact terms—how the woman died, her pelvis destroyed, and how she first begged the doctors to kill her because she knew her baby was already dead.
The film is horror after horror, leavened only briefly by flickering moments of survival, of hope. We see a baby taken from the body of another wounded woman, and it seems such a grey and lifeless thing that we think it can not possibly survive. But we watch as doctors urge it to breathe, to live, and it finally does, miraculously. The joy of the moment is precious in the film, but it is fleeting, tentative: just a few moments later the sound of bombs comes again, and the nurse holding this swaddled creature hurries into a doorway, offering this tiny new life pathetically meager shelter from the Hell into which it has been born.
Throughout the film, we hear how the journalists had to sneak around the city, desperately trying to find a spot where they had enough cell reception to transmit their precious images so the world could see what was happening here. Brief clips and images from these harrowing experiences turn up in news reports from around the world, hours and days of anguish distilled into a few seconds of outraged reporting on Putin's war crimes. And we also see Putin's propaganda machine, claiming the footage was staged, that the alleged victims were actors, that—in spite of footage like a Russian tank firing directly into a residential apartment building, then turning its turret towards a hospital—no civilians were targeted.
"I don't want to be part of the fight for interpretation," Chernov said, after our screening. And he doesn't have to: the images speak for themselves. With a bare minimum of political editorializing, 20 Days in Mariupol is an undeniable indictment. It is an indictment not just of Putin, and Russia, and this criminal war, but of the world that watched and let it happen. One of the most poignant figures in the film is Volodymyr, a policeman who helps the journalists do their work—and ultimately helps them survive and escape—out of a touchingly naive faith that their images will alter the course of the war. Chernov, even as he risks his life to capture those images, is less certain his work will matter. "But we've seen so much death," he narrates. "How can more death change anything?"
And his skepticism is warranted. On Day 20, the day the AP team finally fled Mariupol, the hospital that had been their home-base fell to the Russian forces. On Day 86, the city itself fell. As I write this, it is Day 512, and Mariupol is still occupied by the Russians. The official death toll is around 25,000, and some estimates put it over 100,000.
So 20 Days in Mariupol is a specific and powerfully persuasive political indictment, a surgically precise accusation of criminal actions and ethically criminal inactions in one terrible moment in history. To view it—to review it—as anything else feels inappropriate. And yet it is something else, as well. It is vital reporting, but it is also an essential work of art, universal in its application and beautiful in its fury. It is an indictment of this particular war, and of this particular moral failure, but it is also serves as an indictment of all war, and of all decisions to turn away from the terrible consequences and casualties of violence.
Watching 20 Days in Mariupol I was conscious of how there has been much discussion—quite appropriately—of how the western world's attention has been so captured by the war in Ukraine (where the people are White), while other conflicts and genocides in places like Yemen and Ethiopia have been almost entirely ignored. And I also found it hard not to think of ongoing arguments here, in the U.S., about our nation's deliberate, cowardly refusal to show the victims of gun violence in school shootings and other mass casualty events. 20 Days in Mariupol is not about these things—and it is not a solution to these things—but it is serves as a powerful and devastating reminder of the incredible power of bearing witness, and of the terrible responsibility we have to not turn away. It is an almost unbearably brutal watch, and there should be more films like it. If we are going to let these things happen, we should, at the very least, be willing to look at them.
"This is painful to watch," Chernov says, in 20 Days in Mariupol. "But it must be painful to watch."