“20 days in Mariupol“, premiering as part of the festival’s World Cinema Documentary competition, the long collection of what they captured is presented here as a journalistic team’s first-person experience in these war crimes zones. We see Chernov capture footage in a hospital of wounded young people who dies on a stretcher. Then later the documentary shows us how it became part of the news, sometimes with “Graphic Imagery” warnings. No gruesome sight is unfilmed in the process; there is a great deal of suffering, blood and/or terror in almost every sequence of “20 Days in Mariupol.” As Chernov’s grim narration says when he recounts the daily experiences of reading diary entries in the dark: “This is painful to watch. It must be painful to watch.”
The harrowing, unflinching footage is written, directed and filmed by Chernov and edited with effective brevity by Michelle Mizner; it’s made even more effective by how it takes a series of chaotic events and makes it work with the chronological narrative of a documentary. Chernov’s voiceover stitches all these memories together, and he sometimes shares what he has heard from others living in this war zone. A doctor told him how war makes “good people better and bad people worse.” We see this becoming evident as the residents of Mariupol struggle for food, power, security, medical supplies and much more.
This is the only footage of this experience captured by the international press. “Film so the whole world can see this chaos,” Mariupol citizens shout as they are pushed into a horribly uncertain future and mourn the loss of loved ones. Getting the footage out of the city while it’s under siege – so we can see the actual documentary we’re watching – becomes something else to appreciate about this harrowing miracle of a film.
One must be wary of any degree of sensationalism when recommending “20 Days in Mariupol,” as it is an incredible and confusing viewing experience that also makes one viscerally aware of how much more traumatic it would be and was in first person. But journalism of this high order – equally heroic and selfless – can bridge this gap and preserve life with the power of shared information. To call “20 Days in Mariupol” one of Sundance’s most important films is to undersell it, but we can hope that the festival, its participants and later the rest of the world will see it (PBS Frontline produced the film). “20 Days in Mariupol” will undoubtedly be one of the most important films we have about the understanding of the conflict and its effects on the people of Ukraine, and it is a rousing call for attention and support to be given.