20 Days in Mariupol is a devastating documentary that reveals the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine from the point of view of three AP journalists. Before the invasion, Mariupol, strategically located on the Black Sea, had a population of more than 400,000, divided evenly between Ukrainians and Russians.
When it became increasingly clear that Vladimir Putin intended to launch an invasion of Ukraine, Associated Press staff member Mstyslav Chernov, freelance photographer Evgeniy Maloletka and journalist Vasilisa Stepanenko went straight to Mariupol, arriving on February 24, one hour before the invasion began.
The videos that Chernov shot are more than shocking. They are tragic. Embedded in a hospital, he films as an ambulance delivers a 4-year-old girl named Evangelina, injured after a Russian shell landed near her home. The medical staff try to save her life, but cannot. “Keep filming,” the head doctor insists. “Show that Putin bastard the eyes of this child.” A teenage boy playing football (soccer) near a school dies when a bomb tears his legs off. His bloody shoes lie on the floor of the hospital. Doctors use a defibrillator in an attempt to revive an 18-month-old boy. But he, too, dies. Then the Russians attack a maternity hospital.
For 20 Days in Mariupol, editor Michelle Mizner juxtaposes these scenes with Russian spokespersons insisting that their military is not harming civilians.
According to Chernov, “For several days, the only link we had to the outside world was through a satellite phone. And the only spot where that phone worked was out in the open, right next to a shell crater. I would sit down, make myself small and try to catch the connection. The signal vanished by March 3.” However, his videos and Maloletka’s photographs did make it out and were shown worldwide. Putin and the Russian authorities were furious. They claimed that the Ukrainians had staged the videos and photographs using actors. Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, at a meeting of the Security Council, held up the photo of a woman on a stretcher being rushed out of the maternity hospital and claimed that she was an actress. Of course, Nebenzya was lying. Maloletka’s photograph of the woman wounded as a result of the maternity hospital bombing won the World Press Photo of the Year award.
When the AP crew’s phone batteries ran out, a Ukrainian policeman helped them recharge their phones and continue transmitting their videos and photographs.
On March 11, they were taking photos again from a hospital when Ukrainian soldiers told them they would risk death if they stayed and then helped them evacuate Ukraine.
I visited Ukraine in December 2023 because I was producing video interviews of famous Ukrainian athletes for the archives of the International Olympic Committee. One member of the Ukrainian crew who did the filming told me the story of a friend of his who was a kickboxer. When Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this kickboxer gave up his sport and rushed to Mariupol to defend his country. He was captured by Russian soldiers and sent to prison in Russia. Fifteen months later he was released in a prisoner exchange. He had lost 35 kilograms (77 pounds). I conducted the interviews at the headquarters of the Ukrainian Olympic Committee. In their kitchenette I saw a bowl of cookies with writing in icing. When I asked about the cookies, I was told they had been baked by mothers whose sons were imprisoned in Russia, including one 20-year-old whose mother worked for the Olympic Committee. The stories I was told in Ukraine were dramatic and upsetting. But hearing them was nothing like seeing the reality shown by Mstyslav Chernov in 20 Days in Mariupol. I wish that supporters of Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump, who approve of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, could see this film.