.Come and See

Difficult to watch but we need to look

In late February of 2022, as Russia’s newly launched invasion of Ukraine ramped up on territories in the Ukrainian-Russian borderlands, veteran war correspondent Mstyslav Chernov and his Associated Press team of journalists were situated in the southeastern industrial port city of Mariupol, witnessing the tightening of the noose around the neck of Chernov’s home country.

Mariupol was under siege, and the AP team’s mission was to get as close as possible to the horrors of this particular war in order to explain to the world exactly how brutal the Russian incursion really was, and still is. 20 Days in Mariupol is the record of what happened at the personal level when long-range missiles and artillery attacks on civilian targets were followed by Russian ground troops and tanks. The local population hid in cellars and died by the thousands. The resulting documentary is very difficult to watch and yet absolutely necessary, a diary of chaos and destruction but also of brave resolve in the face of terror.

“I don’t want to die,” sobs a young child for the camera. As rockets rain down on the city and frantic medical techs race to save lives with scant support, the “official” rationale behind the conflict is neither convincing nor coherent. Russian president Vladimir Putin offers familiar, insultingly spurious pretexts to international press conferences, the well-worn “pre-emptive strike” analysis. The “we’re doing this to them before they do that to us” argument. Information itself becomes a weapon. Chernov, the man behind the camera, faces vituperative anger from Mariupol residents who don’t know whom to blame for their misfortune. “We could never imagine the scale” of the Russian onslaught, declares one witness.

Meanwhile journalists struggle to get the reports and images out, and the sad stories multiply. The lifeless body of four-year-old Evangelina lies on a gurney, alone in an empty hospital room, only a few moments after we observe doctors trying in vain to keep her alive. Chernov—who wrote and directed the doc in addition to shooting the footage—and his crew usually only have a few seconds to run out into the street and capture the drama, all the while on hyper-alert for another attack.

A pitiful father weeps over the body of his son, who was out playing soccer with his friends when both his legs were blown off. Survivors emerge from their hiding places to engage in subsistence looting. Panic takes hold of the population, along with a helpless sense of isolation. A police officer appeals for help on camera, hoping for a sympathetic foreign audience. Slit-trench mass graves, freshly dug, are filled with the departed. Suddenly the internet and phones stop working.

A cruel Russian air attack on a maternity hospital, with unimaginable scenes of carnage, raises international outrage and talk of war crimes. But Russian TV claims fake news and actors rigged up to portray bombing victims. Chernov and the other news gatherers risk their lives every second of every day, but the desperation wears down even them. “We keep filming, and things stay the same,” Chernov says. “If the world saw everything that happened in Mariupol, it would give at least some meaning to this horror.”

20 Days in Mariupol bears down heavily on a viewer’s emotions. At times its weight is unbearable. But the witnessing must continue, no matter how intense the suffering. The tension ratchets up when Russian ground troops enter the city. We can hear the chatter of their heavy machine guns blocks away from Chernov’s microphones. At some point it might occur to audiences familiar with history that the Russians are now doing to Ukraine what the Germans did to them, the Russian people, in 1941. But this war does not permit irony.

Mariupol fell by Day 86 of the siege. An estimated 25,000 persons died in the assault. But the conflict slogs on. This documentary is Mstyslav Chernov’s first feature film, a Ukrainian production by Frontline and the Associated Press, intended to play in theaters and on PBS in order to get the word out on the enormous criminality of Putin’s campaign of death and humiliation. Please have the courage to see it.

In theaters.

East Bay Express E-edition East Bay Express E-edition