Review by Sean Boelman
Last year, one of the films to make a huge splash at the Sundance Film Festival was Navalny, a movie which was extraordinarily urgent considering the then-just-about-to-start Russian invasion of Ukraine. A year later, this topic is still relevant, and journalist/filmmaker Mstyslav Chernov’s documentary 20 Days in Mariupol offers what may end up being the definitive version of this story.
The film tells the story of a team of Ukrainian journalists who set out to cover the Russian invasion of the port city Mariupol, only to find themselves trapped as Russian forces surround the city. Made up of footage shot by several AP journalists, this offers an uncomfortable yet necessary glimpse into the war zone.
With this conflict still ongoing, but somehow slipping out of the public’s view, this documentary could not come at a better time. Chernov and his colleagues’ footage is presented completely unfiltered, meaning that it is even more horrifying than many of the images we have seen on television, but this is the way it must be seen for real change to be made.
What really sets this movie out is the tremendous bravery of its filmmaker and subjects. These journalists are risking their lives to expose these injustices and atrocities with a level of honesty and unparalleled access that we have not seen to this point and likely never will again due to the state of the situation in that part of the world.
The film is absolutely relentless in showing the bleak truth, resulting in a near-constant barrage of distressing and upsetting imagery. This is not a documentary for the squeamish, as Chernov does not shy away from the bloody and brutal aftermath of this invasion. However, viewers watching the movie will realize how important it is to see this footage exposing the true face of the conflict.
Perhaps the single most affecting and devastating moment — in a film that is absolutely filled with them — is the last one. Chernov closes on a final image that, while not nearly as graphic as some of the ones before it, manages to perfectly encapsulate every feeling of sadness experienced in the preceding hour and a half in what may be the most haunting ending of a documentary in the history of the medium.
Unfortunately, the one area of the movie that leaves something to be desired is the narration. Chernov narrates the film himself, and while this is understandable given that the movie represents his experience as a journalist on the front lines, his voice is somewhat dry. Still, the images are so harrowing that they are able to do much of the heavy lifting.
20 Days in Mariupol is probably the hardest-to-watch documentary playing at Sundance this year, but it is also undeniably the timeliest. Viewers should not ignore this critical portrait of one of the most devastating conflicts we will ever see in our times.
20 Days in Mariupol is playing at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 19-29 in-person in Park City, UT and January 24-29 online.