“If they catch you, they will get you on camera and they will make you say that everything you filmed is a lie,” he said. “All your efforts and everything you have done in Mariupol will be in vain.”– Mstyslav Chernov on the moment Ukrainian soldiers extracted his team.

Associated Press journalist and Ukrainian war correspondent Mstyslav Chernov directs his first documentary ’20 Days in Mariupol’ as he and his team capture the first few weeks of the Russia-Ukraine war arriving in the port city of 430,000 just one hour before the bombs began to drop. The harrowing footage includes interviews with devastated citizens of Ukraine, the bombing of a maternity ward, and casualties including children as doctors beg the journalists to show the world the results of Russia’s latest aggression. It’s a difficult watch but essential in understating the magnitude of a city ravaged by war and a population whose resilience to the onslaught serves as a testament to their struggle for independence.

As Russian tanks sporting the letter “Z” surround a hospital in Ukraine, the last international reporters left in the city, correspondent Mstyslav Chernov, field producer Vasilisa Stepanenko, and photographer Evgeniy Maloletka, scramble to exit the building as the tank’s turret slowly turns, aiming its cannon at the multi-story structure filled with dozens of doctors and hundreds of patients. Chernov, serving as the documentary’s narrator, comments it’s the first time he’s seen the letter which he calls “Russia’s sign of war” painted on a military vehicle. Russia’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) posted online the letter is a symbol for victory. The Associated Press journalists are quickly escorted out by government officials who realize the important role they play in the ongoing war.

Most of us have never faced war. We have no idea how staggering the anxiety can be for those caught in the conflict. Television and social media can convey the destructiveness of a conflict with images of cities reduced to rubble and mass graves surrounded by grief-stricken families, powerful as they may be, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like inside the war zone, until now.

One of the first civilians we meet in the documentary is a middle-aged woman in a parka walking the streets of her neighborhood. She’s frantic, asking Chernov and his crew, “Where should I hide?!” begging “Where? Please tell me.” She makes the sign of the cross, fighting back tears as she rushes to get home. Chernov instructs her to hide in the basement while a member of his crew comments, “They don’t shoot at civilians, go home.” She resurfaces later in the documentary at a shelter. Alive, but like thousands of Ukrainians, homeless after the Russians destroyed her home.

In another scene, a Mariupol man stands in an alley smoking a cigarette just feet away from where firefighters work to extinguish the flames of another residential neighborhood hit by Russian missiles. He comments that he wants to live in Ukraine in peace and quiet. He tells Chernov, “I saw Putin’s speech online today, f—k,” adding, “He tells his citizens so beautifully that it’s absolutely necessary to attack Ukraine because otherwise, Ukraine will attack Russia first.” He refers to the speech as “Insanity.”

First responders play a significant role in the documentary as they scramble to save lives. Much of the footage is graphic, with the hardest scenes to watch involving children. One doctor escorts Chernov and his crew telling them, “Film this!” pointing to a small room where four operations are happening at once.

“20 Days in Mariupol” is an immersive experience that places the viewer in the middle of the conflict. When a maternity ward is hit with a missile, we are there in the courtyard as soldiers, doctors, and civilians scramble, many carrying stretchers with pregnant women as they try to get them to another hospital. Some don’t make it.

Mstyslav Chernov is not just a war correspondent. He’s from Ukraine, growing up in Kharkiv, 20 miles from the Russian border. He’s covered the ongoing war since it began in 2014, from the annexation of Crimea to the war in the Donbas region and finally the latest incursion by Russia. In an age where misinformation is boundless and deniers are commonplace, “20 Days in Mariupol” is proof of the atrocities committed against the Ukrainian people and a testament to the strength that’s derived from a free society. Hard to watch, yet crucial filmmaking.

(4 stars)

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.