It speaks volumes for the savagery of Russia’s foreign policy that there’s an entire, fast-swelling subgenre of documentaries featuring its bombing of civilian hospitals. To 2019’s heartrending For Sama, which recorded the destruction of the Syrian city of Aleppo by Russian bombers through the prism of a female filmmaker and her young family, comes an equally gnarly snapshot of the 2022 siege of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.
Ukrainian videographer Mstyslav Chernov was on the ground to record what happened when Mariupol, a port city only 35 miles from the Russian border, was cut off by Putin’s invasion in February 2022. The footage he supplied to the world’s news outlets as an Associated Press reporter appeared on our TV news bulletins at the time. Here, it’s stitched together into an almost overwhelming document of a city, and its people, dying over three brutal weeks.
In the manner of all good war reporters, Chernov resists making any of it about himself. His camera, often pointing downwards as he evades the crack of bullets and explosions a few streets away, tells the story with minimal editorialising and context. Frequently cut off from communication with the outside world, he’s in emergency rooms, observing mass graves and riding in improvised ambulances, bearing witness to the unfolding horrors. ‘Show how these motherfuckers are killing children,’ barks a doctor to camera as another child lies dead in surgery.
His camera often points downwards as he evades the crack of bullets
If the harrowing moments come thick and fast, so do the myth-busting ones. During the siege, Russian propaganda claimed that bombing victims were plants, singling out one wounded pregnant woman as ‘an actress’ wearing make-up. Chernov’s footage shows that very woman stumbling, dazed through the rubble. There are no actors here.
20 Days in Mariupol can’t match For Sama for a Hollywood ending. That film sought to cut its bleakness with a whisper of hope – a new baby born in a shelled maternity ward – and a sense that something might, just might, survive the horror. Chernov has nothing as optimistic as that for us, just a fly-on-the-wall account of an unfolding atrocity. And it’s devastating.
In UK cinemas now.