Monday, July 10, 2023

20 Days in Mariupol

One day, hopefully soon, this film will be entered into evidence in a war crimes tribunal of Putin and his enablers. For ninety-plus minutes, it records the systemic targeting of Ukrainian non-combatant civilians in the port city of Mariupol. “War Crime” is simply the only term that suits the events Ukrainian journalist Mstyslav Chernov and his Frontline and AP colleagues documented, like snipers assassinating nurses entering a hospital, which have no remotely credibly military justification. No matter what they might think of Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, Chernov’s 20 Days in Mariupol will knock the wind out of audiences when it opens this Friday in New York.

You will see several children die while watching this film and you will share the grief of their parents, even if you have no children of your own. Chernov (a native of Kharkiv) and his colleagues were there to show the world what was happening, but the Russian forces definitely did not want the story getting out.

Right from the start, they cut all power and internet access to the besieged city. There were only a handful of hotspots where Chernov could file his reports. Everything the world saw during the early days of the Mariupol siege came from his efforts. That is why the Russians wanted him. It was not just about stopping him. They also wanted to force him to recant.

Over the course of 20 days, Chernov records a city in crisis. We see one hospital shelled into rubble and another terrorized by sniper fire. Apartment buildings with no reasonable military significance are regularly razed. Nobody is safe, especially not children trying to enjoy a football game during an occasional moment of calm.

It is hard to describe the enormity of the crimes against humanity captured on film throughout
20 Days. Even if you think you follow the events unfolding in Ukraine quite closely (as I did), you will walk out of Chernov’s documentary in a state of shock (as I mostly certainly did). You will also feel shame that the free western world has allowed these atrocities to occur. (Remember those feelings of outrage for next month’s release of A Compassionate Spy, a documentary about Ted Hall, the Manhattan Project scientist who gave atomic secrets to the Soviets, thereby making possible the very nuclear arsenal Putin inherited, which he is using to blackmail the West into neutrality and threatening to launch against Ukraine.)

One of the few half-criticisms leveled at
20 Days is its lack of a dramatic arc, but that is not valid. Initially, Chernov and his colleagues record the horrors of Mariupol, but in the third act, they become fugitives, trying to escape with their footage, so the world can bear witness. Honestly, it does not get much more dramatic than that. Eventually, this film will screen at the Hague. For now, it is in theaters. Recommended with urgency, 20 Days in Mariupol opens this Friday (7/14) in New York, at Film Forum.