The day after I finally got around to seeing 20 Days in Mariupol, the International Court of Justice ruled that there was sufficient basis to further investigate South Africa’s case against Israel: a historic ruling that signals the genocide convention won’t be ignored, despite leading western powers who have ignored it to pledge the perpetrators their unwavering support. It’s only the second time such a case has been brought to the ICJ, and here it was largely because the mounting evidence supporting the charge of genocide––from harrowing social-media footage taken on the ground in Gaza to statements from senior Israeli politicians––was impossible to overlook. Perhaps the eeriest thing about Mstyslav Chernov’s Oscar-nominated documentary is being reminded of similar events occurring just 30 miles from the Russia-Ukraine border, with nothing in the way of a substantial ramification that can start to usher a ceasefire into sight. 

Largely restricted to the footage Chernov and a team of journalists compiled in the first weeks of the conflict, it’s a vital reminder of the humanitarian cost of a military invasion that has largely been abstracted since the conflict began. The war is still raging on, of course, but seldom in the headlines; attacks on hospitals, residential areas, and hospitals kept piling up, yet became increasingly underreported next to the political hot potato of funding for Ukraine’s military effort. Even now, the idea of peace talks or weightier ramifications for Russia––such as being made to answer for many of the genocidal acts documented within this film––have come an increasing second to the need to support the military fighting back, which only serves as a promise to further the death and destruction. Ukraine has, through the way this conflict has been reported, largely been conflated with its President––a figure worthy of criticism who is neither seen nor heard in this film––which I think is why there has been an increased apathy, especially on the left, towards what continues to unfold in the country. If nothing else, by strictly focusing on the humanitarian casualties of those first weeks following the invasion in February 2022, 20 Days in Mariupol is a reminder of the continued urgency to ensure the bloodshed ends, and that those responsible are one day held to account. 

The undeniable necessity of its footage renders Chernov’s documentary hard to assess as a filmmaking enterprise. He doesn’t obfuscate the horrors––we witness the bombings of tower blocks and hospitals alongside the journalists, spending time amongst the doctors struggling to operate on the numerous casualties with dwindling supplies, and the piles of dead bodies tossed into open graves outside. It’s difficult to stomach, but ultimately important to have been captured onscreen; we see in real time the journalists’ struggles to get this out into the wider world, with most of Mariupol suffering from a lack of connectivity after the prolonged destruction of their infrastructure. Thus it’s a miracle that any documentation of these atrocities was able to be broadcast at all, and accordingly the film will always be graded on a curve. The vitality of the project naturally overrides any minor criticism of the filmmaking itself––how do you fairly judge the aesthetic values of a team risking their lives to ensure significant war crimes are reported to the world? 

So please feel free to overlook my minor criticisms of certain directorial decisions, chiefly the manner in which Chernov frequently cuts from the action on the ground to international news broadcasts summarizing the situation, not all of which utilize the footage he and his colleagues captured. The only benefit of these moments is allowing momentary breathers from the harrowing events as seen in first-person by the journalists; regardless, it compromises the boldly vérité approach, which manages to perfectly balance the horror and mundanity of this new normal. 

That mundanity might actually be the most striking thing about the documentary. While nearly two years of reportage has ensured the most-harrowing footage has featured in global news bulletins, very little has been captured about the more grounded inconveniences of living in a war zone. In-between footage taken at hospitals or opposite residential buildings Russian forces are ceaselessly attacking, we spend time with the security forces tasked with stopping civilians from looting shops––even during an unprecedented period of unrest, there are still people tasked with stopping the pettiest crimes in the name of survival. It’s understated just how much the implementation of martial law plays into this, but the unobtrusive nature with which scenes like this are captured––coupled with the relative normality on many nearby city streets––could easily be mistaken for scenes during peacetime, where law-enforcement agencies place more effort on targeting the most minor crimes.  

Like many documentaries about conflicts still unfolding at the time of premiere, 20 Days in Mariupol is both essential and far from perfect. It can’t be fully, objectively judged when much of the footage within is as urgent as this; it needs to be seen, if only for the vague hope it can help hold the perpetrators’ feet to the fire. 

20 Days in Mariupol is now streaming for free above.

Grade: B

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