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#HotDocs23 Review: 20 Days in Mariupol

May 8, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The 2023 Hot Docs Film Festival ran from April 27th to May 7th in Toronto, more information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

Directed by Mystlav Chernov, one of three Associated Press journalists who went to the Ukrainian city of Mariupol as soon as Russian leader Vladimir Putin announced his “Special Military Operation” in the country on February 24th, 2022, 20 Days in Mariupol offers an on the ground account of those first roughly three weeks as bombs began to drop and civilian casualties increased.

Along with journalists Vasilisa Stepanenko and Evgeniy Maloletka, Chernov captures images of a city under siege, with infrastructure crumbling from the constant shelling and people getting killed in the streets. We see a boy who had his legs blown off playing soccer, a dying pregnant woman, and doctors desperately trying to save a child on the operating table. Meanwhile, the journalists are left scrambling trying to get cell service so that they can get these clips out to to the world through the media.

The images are presented in an unvarnished, matter of fact way, with Chernov’s grave voiceover and onscreen title cards counting down the days providing context. Spliced in are clips from Russia’s state propaganda television telling us that the images we have just witnessed have been staged using crisis actors, a chilling juxtaposition to the real world carnage we are seeing. It’s an interesting approach because it helps us understand the importance of these journalists documenting these images in real time, as impossible as they are to see.

The film almost becomes too much to watch, with its onslaught of carnage and no real reprieve from it as the situation only grows more dire and the journalists are left scrambling to flee. But it’s important that these images are out there. By showing the civilians and children who are killed in the constant shelling and gunfire, 20 Days in Mariupol allows us to see the full scale of the carnage that is being wrought by Russian forces. It’s an impossibly bleak but also necessary document of the early days of the war in Ukraine.

Screenings: No more festival screenings, but the film will be streaming online across Canada from May 5th to 9th, and tickets can be purchased here.

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