Sundance 2023: 20 Days in Mariupol, Pianoforte | Festivals & Awards
Written by on January 23, 2023
“20 Days in Mariupol,” premiering as part of the festival’s World Cinema Documentary competition, is the feature-length compilation of what they captured, presented here as a journalist team’s first-person experience into those war crime zones. We see Chernov capture footage in a hospital of maimed young people dying on gurneys. Then later the documentary shows us how it became part of the news, sometimes with “Graphic Imagery” warnings. No gruesome sight is unfilmed in the process; there is a great amount of suffering, blood, and/or terror in nearly every sequence of “20 Days in Mariupol.” As Chernov’s somber narration states when recounting the day-to-day experiences like reading journal entries in darkness: “This is painful to watch. It must be painful to watch.”
The harrowing, unshakeable footage is written, directed, and filmed by Chernov and edited with effective succinctness by Michelle Mizner; it is made all the more effective by how it takes a series of chaotic events and makes it work with a documentary’s chronological narrative. Chernov’s voiceover stitches all of these memories together, and he sometimes shares what he has heard from others living in this war zone. One doctor told him how war makes “good people become better, and bad people worse.” We see that become evident as the people of Mariupol struggle for food, power, safety, medical supplies, and more.
This is the only footage from this experienced captured by the international press. “Film so the whole world can see this chaos,” Mariupol citizens yell as they are pushed into a horrifically uncertain future, mourning the loss of loved ones. Getting the footage out of the city as it is under siege—so that we can see the very documentary we’re watching—becomes something else to appreciate about this harrowing miracle of a film.
One must be careful with any degree of sensationalism when recommending “20 Days in Mariupol,” as it is an incredible, and haunting viewing experience that also makes one viscerally aware of just how much more traumatic it would be and was in first-person. But journalism of this high order—equally heroic and selfless—can bridge that gap, and preserve lives with the power of shared information. To call “20 Days in Mariupol” one of the most important movies of Sundance is to undersell it, but we can hope that the festival, its attendees, and later the rest of the world will see it (PBS Frontline produced the movie). “20 Days in Mariupol” will undoubtedly be one of the most important films we have about understanding the conflict and its effects on the people of Ukraine, and it is a rousing call for attention and support that must be given.