' ' Cinema Romantico: 20 Days in Mariupol

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

20 Days in Mariupol

As “20 Days in Mariupol” begins, three Ukrainian journalists, including director Mstyslav Chernov, watch from a Mariupol hospital as black plumes of smoke from artillery shells rise in the distance and tanks emblazoned with the letter Z, marking them as Russian, roll into view. It feels like something culled from a war movie aiming for intense realism, but this is no docudrama, this is a documentary, and when the camera briefly zooms out so that we see one of the journalists perched at the window, snapping pictures of the unfolding scene outside, it breaks the spell. “Film it,” someone says in a line functioning as the film’s dire mantra. Chernov and his Associated Press colleagues, Evgeniy Maloletka and Vasilisa Stepanenko, might have eschewed fleeing the eponymous city in the Donetsk Oblast as Russian forces mounted their invasion of Ukraine in 2022, but they are not cowboys, and this is not “Live from Baghdad,” the 2002 HBO movie recounting CNN’s broadcast of the beginning of the Gulf War. Those airstrikes were timed specifically for the American evening news and became advertisements, militaristic cheerleading, the “We’re going to war!” scene in “Starship Troopers” (1997) lived out for real. “20 Days in Mariupol,” on the other hand, takes the form of Chernov’s detached voiceover, numbed by trauma. 

Though occasionally Chernov and his team are waved away by people who would rather not appear on camera, they are just as frequently approached by people who would, like a policeman specifically wanting to bear witness to the atrocities he has seen, or a doctor who matter-of-factly recounts a pregnant woman who lost both her own life and her baby, transforming the entire documentary into something akin to moving testimony. The images here are as brutal as they are relentless, death and terror and the terrorized aftermath, people with no place to go, their homes destroyed, their lives violently upended. Chernov repeatedly shows us the images that he and his skeleton crew shot, and then he shows us these same images being broadcast over various news networks, at home and abroad. This is less self-congratulatory than an evocation of their mission, to show the world what’s happening, all of “20 Days in Mariupol” rendered in the image of one shot peering through a spider-webbed window caused by a bullet, a cracked view into this obscene conflict. 

“My brain wants to forget what I saw,” Chernov says at one point in voiceover, “but the camera will remember.” It’s an observation as broad as it is specific, underlining the purpose and power of a movie camera in the first place, and becoming an emphatic rejoinder to Russia’s UN Ambassador, seen near the doc’s end dismissing so much of the footage emerging from Mariupol as fake news, the standard-issue deflection of blowhards, con artists, and strongmen, daring us to bury our heads in the sand, to not believe all that we have just seen. Watching this unfold, you can only hope there is a Chernov on the ground in Gaza right now. 

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