Jacob Mendez
Jacob Mendez

“20 days in Mariupol”: Hear this scream

  • An uncompromising document about the destruction of the titular city, written by the only journalist who stayed there until the end. Chernov’s film, which, risking his life, recorded Russian crimes and the everyday life of the inhabitants of Mariupol.
  • Movie “20 days in Mariupol” will hit Polish cinema screens on March 8, 2024.

In the first months of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, we watched everything go. A gloomy series with no chance for a happy ending. No consolation, maybe only with greater hope than today, that the West will help, that the US will help, that everything will somehow work out. Will you help? We will help.

We didn’t help, not entirely, but we only know that today, when we still have hope, but unfortunately much weaker, and global problems, problems in other countries and continents, certainly do not help.

In those days, the heroic months of the winter of 2022 that turned into spring, when we collectively pinned blue and yellow emblems to our coats and jackets, and many Polish homes were inhabited by war refugees from Ukraine for a shorter or longer period of time, we also heard about Mariupol. This is the story of the Oscar-nominated and Pulitzer Prize-winning film by Mstislav Chernov, the only filmmaker who stayed with his camera in the city until the very end.

Mariupol was a beautiful port city – and very populous, with over four hundred thousand inhabitants, and strategically located: in the Donetsk Oblast, on the Sea of ​​Azov. Today it is a city-symbol of Ukraine’s defense and heroism.

The Battle of Mariupol lasted from February to May 2022. The Russians deliberately bombed power lines, drug warehouses, waterworks, buses and cell phone operators’ towers were destroyed. The battle ended on May 20, when the last soldiers defending the Azovstal plant surrendered to the Russians.

During twenty days of the defense of Mariupol, twenty-five thousand inhabitants were killed, ninety percent of apartment blocks and sixty percent of single-family houses were damaged. Doom, hecatomb.

“20 Days in Mariupol” is therefore a document about the death of the city and its people. About dying. A specific person and a nameless collective. About children dying. About something incomprehensible, which until now we knew mainly from history, textbooks and reading books.

“There is no such thing as objectivity. A reporter’s objectivity is a matter of conscience. And he should answer the question himself as to what is close to the truth,” wrote Ryszard Kapuściński.

Mstislav Chernov does not pretend to be impartial, he does not seek objectivity, he is a committed reporter. There is too much and too bad going on to allow lege artis to look for both sides to be right. In this case there is no doubt – one side was attacked by the other. There will be no beautification, says Chernow, no powdering, no masking. Brutally about brutality, without self-censorship. Whoever endures will watch it until the end.

The documentary “20 Days in Mariupol” lasts just over an hour and a half, but this time will be difficult. My eyes squeeze shut. Caliber too strong. Here is a pregnant girl being carried out of a maternity clinic after the Russians attacked the hospital. She will die soon, together with her unborn child.

The scenes involving children, defenseless children of war, are the most impressive. And Chernov doesn’t give up. A kid wounded by a Soviet grenade. Resuscitation.

A boy playing football who lost both legs. In this scene, the documentary filmmaker will hear: “Mścisław, film it all, document it, shoot it, let them see what it really looked like, what they are doing to us.”

However, it is not about shocking the viewer, the shock is a consequence of the adopted method. It’s about testimony. Recording the truth. See how it was. See how they work. See, so that you will never make a mistake again.

Chernov also exposes Russia’s countless lies. We know this song. The document begins with Putin’s statement, repeated many times, repeated hundreds of times, that if they did not undertake – as he called it – a “special operation”, the Ukrainians would attack defenseless Russians. From the beginning, hardly anyone believed in these propaganda slogans (except the Russians), and at this point, probably no one believes anymore.

Mstislav Chernov, a Ukrainian journalist working for the Associated Press, along with four reporters, stayed in Mariupol from beginning to end.

The first scenes are terrifying, but not everyone believes that this terror will come true yet. Like a phrase from Miłosz’s poem: “no one believes that it is already becoming.” People are in a hurry, looking around uncertainly. They seem to know, but they don’t believe it, Chernov himself also suggests: “They will leave civilians behind, they won’t shoot at civilians.” Disillusionment will occur immediately. Apartments, blocks of flats, hospitals shot at. Dead people in the streets, children, graves. We have to dig more graves, not individual ones, but collective ones, there are not enough hands to work. In a moment, another bomb falls, directly onto the newly organized cemetery.

The document, initially commissioned by the AP agency, was created in wartime conditions. Chernov himself could have lost his life at any moment. However, he did not leave the city, he stayed. He managed to smuggle thirty hours of material, thirty hours of despair, out of Mariupol. This is how this film was created – a work which, despite all the war atrocities it contains, is also a cinema full of formal discipline, successful in artistic terms.

The louder, the quieter. Dead people, screams of Russians, terrified eyes of women, that’s enough. No more is needed. That’s probably why the scene filmed in one of the Mariupol bombers made such an impression on me. A child hugs a kitten. He is playing with the cat. Life goes on, it’s also war.


“20 days in Mariupol”, dir. Mstislav Chernov, Ukraine 2023, distributor: Watch Dogs, cinema premiere: March 8, 2024.