Runtime: 85 minutes
Director/Writer: Mstyslav Chernov
By Joan Amenn
Those of a certain age will find this film recalling painful memories of watching footage from the Vietnam War on the nightly news. Raw and powerful, “20 Days in Mariupol” (2023) deserves its nomination as Best Documentary for this year’s SIFF competition. It will leave you with your heart bounding and a sense of desperate urgency for the people of Ukraine. In other words, it is outstanding in every way.
Trapped in the city of Mariupol, a small group of Associated Press journalists, let by director Mstyslav Chernov, brace themselves for what they know will be horrible as Russian tanks roll in and bombs start to fall. However, even after eight years of brewing aggression from that country, the journalists and citizens both prove unprepared for the level of destruction that ensues. At one point, an elderly woman is reassured by a member of the press team that the Russians won’t bomb civilians only to have precisely that occur only a matter of hours later. She survives to ruefully chide the journalists when they meet again at a hospital where the casualties of the bombing are brought in.
This is an excruciating watch that many won’t have the stomach to endure but it is extremely important that it finds an audience. Lives continue to be lost and the bravery of the journalists who knowingly put themselves at risk so that the world learns what is happening in their country deserves to be honored. They represent what news reporting truly is; that is, a record of extraordinary happenings that cannot then be denied having occurred later on. This last part is particularly important in this age of spin, manipulation and outright lies that tend to drown out whatever the powerful do not want to acknowledge. As a soldier insists repeatedly to the journalists, their work can change the course of the war if it can get out of the occupied zone. Nearly a year and a half later, Ukraine still stands even if Mariupol remains occupied. The world can still make a difference in this war if they refuse to look away from stories such as this one coming from the indomitable journalists who continue to report them. Slava Ukraini!