20 Days in Mariupol review: A vital, nightmarish chronicle of the Ukraine war

Nothing quite prepares you for the gut punch that arrives in the form of 20 Days in Mariupol- a devastatingly powerful documentary cum reportage assembled by Ukrainian journalist Mstyslav Chernov, along with field producer Vasilia Stepanenko, and still photographer Evgeniy Maloteka on the early weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They arrived in the port city of Mariupol just hours before bombing began on February 24, 2022. From here on, the recording began- bearing witness to death, loss and despair on an unprecedented scale of crisis. (Also read: The Hearing review: Thought-provoking doc on the ordeal of asylum seekers hides a genius twist)

20 Days in Mariupol played at the 30th Sheffield DocFest.
20 Days in Mariupol played at the 30th Sheffield DocFest.

Rarely has there been a film as vital and immediate as this one- exposing the unfiltered horrors of living in a battle zone, building up the terror and shock of the residents as they suddenly realize their houses can be bombed anytime and there is no place to go. The film first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this January, winning the Audience Award, and has just won the Tim Hetherington Award at Sheffield DocFest.

“This is painful to watch. It must be painful to watch,” declares the voiceover by Chernov, a calm counterpoint to the gruesome and spine-chilling footage that arrives in nearly every sequence of this 95 minutes film. In an early scene, they encounter an older woman scared that her house will be hit and they tell her to go home. Later she’s found alive, but her biggest fear came true. Her house was destroyed. In one heartbreaking scene, a little girl says, “I don’t want to die, I wish it would all end soon.” The visuals will stir you.

The camera also witnesses a father grieving over the body of his son who was killed while he was out playing soccer. Outside in the streets, citizens have begun stealing goods out of shops in sheer desperation. Chernov’s voiceover glues these incidents together into one unforgettable whole. Perhaps the most indelible and devastating of all images is that of a heavily pregnant woman being carried out on a stretcher from a maternity hospital that has been bombed. We come to know that both her and the unborn baby died.

Residents take shelter in basements as casualties pile up on the streets which are eventually put in mass graves, hospital doctors work overtime with hundreds of injured civilians piling up the spaces. Medical facilities have already begun to dry up. “War is like an X-Ray. All human insides become visible. Good people become better. Bad people become worse,” is how one defines the human rights violation that took place in Ukraine. The senses will try to erase the pain perhaps, but the camera remembers. It does not forget.

Expertly edited by Michelle Mizner, 20 Days in Mariupol documents the war with a punishing degree of immediacy. The more you see it unravel, the more you wish to look away. This vitality arrives largely without an iota of sensationalism and embellishment, although some might argue that the documentary works almost like a live news reportage. But there is no denying the power of this miracle of a film- perhaps the most horrifying, nightmarish piece of documentary filmmaking I have seen in recent times.

(Santanu Das is covering Sheffield DocFest for Hindustan Times as part of the accredited press.)

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