Almost one year ago, the world froze in fear. The war between the Ukraine and Russia drew the entire world’s attention, and questions about intervention swam through conversations. As Russian soldiers advanced into the former USSR nation, horrifying videos and images began leaking out of Ukraine. The battles were terrible enough, but the true horrors came in the deaths of civilians and the thousands of refugees running from incoming forces. Director Mstyslav Chernov worked as a member of the Associated Press as a war correspondent during the invasion. As the war approaches the city of Mariupol, Chernov and his team find themselves documenting the brutality, violence, and death.


20 Days in Mariupol picks up just before the first bombs would land in the city. Chernov and the team interviewed residents of the city, asking for their opinions and worries. In the calm before the storm, there is some hope. Over the next twenty days, Chernov watches the people’s resilience in Mariupol while capturing the death and destruction. While Chernov assumed civilians would not be targeted, the deaths of children, mothers, and the elderly make it clear that any Ukrainian is seen as a target. The images they capture will stick with you forever and are certainly not for the faint of heart.

A still from 20 Days in Mariupol by Mstyslav Chernov, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Evgeniy Maloletka.

Ukrainian by birth, Chernov had covered the revolution in 2014 and had since traveled the world to cover other warzones. His experience is evident and, simultaneously, makes it clear how abnormal the violence in Ukraine has become. While it’s his job to be objective in his coverage as a member of the associated press, it’s also clear his heart aches. His own family will be in danger, not only because of the footage he shoots but because of his ties to Ukraine. He splices in his own fears and home footage, showing the death in destruction makes it impossible to be an impartial journalist.

20 Days in Mariupol combines the wildly upsetting footage with Chernov’s narration. He delivers it extremely monotone, but also in English. This will undoubtedly rub some audiences the wrong way, as the film does not necessarily need his commentary to be compelling. Yet, his Ukrainian heritage makes it impossible to separate himself from this footage. Unlike other stories and documentaries that approach this harrowing footage from an objective lens, there’s a fair argument to be made that Chernov’s authenticity helped him gain the trust of the locals. However, when the people of Mariupol turn on the journalists, their insults sting the crew. Chernov would always have more of his emotions invested in the story, but these moments feel especially hard on a man trying to spread the truth.

A still from 20 Days in Mariupol by Mstyslav Chernov, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka.

The presence of a free press must be upheld during wartime. Yet Russian forces prove to adhere to a shoot-first mentality. As a result, 20 Days in Mariupol features genuinely terrifying sequences involving military intervention. Tanks and bombs create explosions around the crew. We watch doctors try to save the lives of children. It is truly impossible to stay detached from the people of Mariupol and their suffering. An escape sequence through the streets of Mariupol sends shockwaves through the audience. At every turn, we expect to see a new atrocity or a new horror. The actions of these filmmakers are nothing less than heroic.

From start to finish, 20 Days in Mariupol is a testament to the strength of the city’s people. It preaches the importance of free journalism and sheds light on the stakes of the conflict. As the battles rage in Ukraine, the world watches with bated breath. After watching 20 Days in Mariupol, the stakes have never felt higher. It’s a film that is not for the faint of heart but is an essential piece of filmmaking to stand the test of time.

Alan’s Rating: 10/10

What did you think of 20 Days in Mariupol? Let us know in the comments below! 20 Days in Mariupol is currently playing at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Check out our full coverage of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival By Visiting Our Festival Hub!

Leave a Reply