20 Days in Mariupol: harrowing on-the-ground reportage from the war in Ukraine

Mstyslav Chernov’s heart-rending film is told from the perspective of the besieged inhabitants of the south-eastern port city of Mariupol, a key Russian target.

20 Days In Mariupol (2023)

The telegrammatic title of Mstyslav Chernov’s queasily riveting film refers to the time that he spent in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol between Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 and his successful evacuation 20 days later. In between, he was part of a team (alongside photographer Evgeniy Maloletka and producer Vasilisa Stepanenko) trying to record as much of what was happening in Mariupol as possible, relying on increasingly sparse internet access to get it to the outside world. (Chernov filmed 25 hours of footage but was able to transmit only half an hour to his Associated Press editors from Mariupol itself, at one point reduced to transmitting ten-second chunks via his mobile phone.)

The importance of his footage is repeatedly highlighted by the excerpts shown of global news stations making use of it, and by the fact that its visceral power rattled numerous Russians (including foreign minister Sergei Lavrov) into trying to smear his work as ‘fake news’ performed by ‘crisis actors’. But nobody watching this significantly extended cut of the same material could sensibly believe that it’s staged.

It’s very much on-the-ground reportage, with a wider perspective provided only via occasional brief news-channel montages. Vladimir Putin announces the commencement of the euphemistically titled ‘special operation’ at the start, but it’s nearly an hour before we see Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy – and only briefly. With access to information conduits curtailed or cancelled outright (and the possibility that their informants might be Russians trying to mislead them), the film deftly captures the widespread confusion at the sharp end. A particularly memorable shot, which might have been adorably funny in a different kind of film, is of a guinea pig desperately running as if its life depended on it, but with no idea where to go. 

20 Days in Mariupol

All too often, the guinea pig’s human counterparts are no better informed. The film is particularly good at capturing the fog of war through paradoxically pin-sharp high-definition images. To begin with, Chernov and his colleagues blithely assure worried residents that the Russians won’t shell domestic buildings, until they do. (To their credit, they later apologise on camera to the people they initially misled). Seeking follow-ups to the heart-rending human stories that they’ve captured demands persistence and detective work, often culminating in confirmation that the person they’re tracing has not survived. Chernov has years of experience covering conflicts in his native Ukraine, but the sheer force of Russia’s 2022 onslaught took him as much by surprise as it did Mariupol civilians. 

Throughout, Chernov (who narrates in English) wrestles with similar dilemmas to those discussed in David and Jacqui Morris’s outstanding documentary McCullin (2012). But that film consisted of a retrospective interview with the great war photographer Don McCullin, whose conflict-covering years were by then well behind him; here, Chernov is seen having to make similar decisions on his feet, with planes flying overhead, bombs going off and screaming victims being treated by surgeons who are running out of painkillers and electricity. 

Some of Chernov’s subjects don’t want to be filmed at all, others agree reluctantly and won’t give their names, while still others – notably the doctors at the hospital where Chernov’s images are at their most unflinching – encourage him to film as much as his memory cards will permit. One doctor even gives an impromptu speech in Ukrainian and English, hoping that his message will make it to the outside world. Other moral issues are raised when a woman berates her compatriots for taking advantage of the chaos to loot her shop – she shames one man into abandoning a child’s football (itself a grim reminder of what happened when a teenage football game was shelled early on), but by this point she’s been virtually cleaned out.

“Whoever wins the information war wins the war”, we’re reminded part way through, and Chernov’s film is a scorchingly vivid testament to the importance of first-hand information. Indeed, he regrets being evacuated, as there was clearly much more that could have been recorded, but what he captured is potent enough. It’s an intensely upsetting film, frequently showing the kind of images that TV news editors understandably shy away from broadcasting (although the faces and other identifying details of injured victims have tactfully been blurred), but this is never for gratuitous shock value. Like McCullin before him, Chernov fully understands his ethical responsibilities, however hard they may be to apply in practice under literal fire.

 ► 20 Days in Mariupol is in UK cinemas now.