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Credit: “20 Days in Mariupol” Facebook account

Oscar winner “20 days in Mariupol” shows raw reality of Russia’s war

From bombed hospitals to mass graves, Oscar-winning documentary “20 Days in Mariupol” presents an unvarnished look at the human cost of Russia’s invasion.
Oscar winner “20 days in Mariupol” shows raw reality of Russia’s war

I look at the Google map of Mariupol and see a maternity hospital labeled “temporarily closed.” It’s not opening any time soon — a Russian airstrike on the building full of pregnant women and infants on 9 March 2022 killed six people and injured over 30. Immediately after, Russian authorities yet again falsely accused Ukraine of “staging” the tragedy.

However, the war crime was thoroughly documented by Mstyslav Chernov and his AP team, the only journalists remaining in the besieged city. They risked their lives for the footage that later became an Oscar-winning documentary, 20 Days in Mariupol, so that the world could see the horrific truth of Russian atrocities.

The eyewitness documentary 20 Days in Mariupol shows the first weeks of fighting and siege in Mariupol during Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. It won the Oscar for Best Documentary, making it the first Academy Award for Ukraine.

The filmmakers — director and photographer Mstyslav Chernov, photographer Yevhen Malolietka, and producer and journalist Vasylisa Stepanenko — received numerous accolades, including the BAFTA, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Ukrainian Shevchenko Prize in 2024.

20 Days in Mariupol has also become the highest-grossing documentary in Ukraine. The film has 2 million views on YouTube despite only being available in the United States.

Why should you watch 20 Days in Mariupol?

Unembellished facts

20 Days in Mariupol is a documentary chronicle at its finest. There is no contrived drama built up through music or editing effects. The film opens with the poignant line “Wars don’t start with explosions — they start with silence.” The understated soundtrack and Chernov’s haunting voiceover serve as a subtle background, allowing the authentic footage to speak for itself. Frightened civilians huddled in shelters. Relentless Russian bombardments. Somber mass graves.

The authors do not shy away from uncomfortable truths. The film shows angry Mariupol residents swearing at journalists, and soldiers asking not to be filmed, while doctors, in contrast, implore the press to show the horrors to the world as they desperately try (and fail) to save a 4-year-old girl.

The Associated Press team depicts Mariupol residents rescuing their cherished pets despite the shelling and inhumane conditions. However, they also refuse to gloss over footage of other city residents looting devastated shops.

This frankness makes the film a compelling and accurate account of the horrible events. “War is like an X-ray — all human insides become visible. Good people become better, bad people become worse,” Mstyslav Chernov quotes the doctors.

Courage for the sake of truth

In the first days of the full-scale invasion, international press outlets fled Mariupol en masse. For over two weeks, Mstyslav Chernov and his team remained the sole source of information from the city under Russian siege, putting their lives on the line. The journalists harbored no illusions about the fate that awaited them if captured. The Russians would undoubtedly force them to “confess” that all the footage was fake.

“My brain desperately wants to forget this, but the camera won’t let it happen,” Chernov says in the film. It is their footage, transmitted under shelling from the sole remaining point in the city with remaining slivers of an internet connection, that revealed to the world the extent of Russian war crimes in Mariupol.

Historical importance

How did the journalists convince the military that they needed to film everything? “Understand, this is a historical war,” says Chernov behind the camera, “Not documenting it is impossible.”

Intriguingly, like many other lines spoken by the film’s characters, this line is spoken in Russian. It comes as no surprise that the Mariupol residents and Kharkiv-born Chernov converse in Russian, given that the eastern part of Ukraine remains one of the most Russified regions in the country after enduring centuries of Ukrainian language bans. This frank detail once again exposes the cynicism of Russian propaganda narratives: they do not save the “Russian-speaking” civilian population but exterminate it.

This documentary is a reminder that the war is not over, and Ukraine still needs all the international support it can get. The search results for “Mariupol” skyrocketed after the Oscars, and the Russian invasion is once again a topic of discussion in international media. Chernov wishes he had never made this film. Such recognition is a bittersweet victory, as the price for it is thousands of lives lost.

An estimated 25,000 people died in the siege. The true toll is likely much higher. “This is painful to watch—but it must be painful to watch,” Chernov remarks in the film. So watch if you want to know what really transpired in Mariupol. Watch it for the sake of Illia, 16, who will never again play soccer with his friends, his life cut short by Russian shelling. Watch it for the millions of other Ukrainian kids who have lost their childhoods to the war and may yet lose their lives if Ukraine does not prevail.

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