Academy Award nominee 20 Days in Mariupol dispels Russian propaganda

Learn more about Igor Khrestin .
Igor Khrestin
Bradford M. Freeman Managing Director, Global Policy
George W. Bush Institute

*This piece was published before the 2024 Oscars on Sunday, March 10. The 20 Days in Mariupol has won the 2024 Oscar for best documentary. 

Kirill, 18 months old. Evangelina, 4 years old. Ilya, 16 years old.   

These three children were some of the first victims of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, starting on Feb. 24, 2022, and graphically chronicled in Mstyslav Chernov’s award-winning documentary 20 Days in Mariupol. The film details the fall of Mariupol, a Ukrainian coastal city on the Azov Sea some 35 miles from the border with Russia, through these three children and many others that would perish.  

Chernov, a reporter with the Associated Press, is embedded in the city and decides to stay put as most foreign reporters flee within hours of Russia’s invasion. It would be a decision that would nearly cost him and his photographer, Evgeniy Maloletka, their lives.   

20 Days in Mariupol was nominated for the 2024 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature Film, which will be presented at the Oscar ceremony on Sunday, March 10. Whether or not it wins, it will stand the test of time as one of the greatest war documentaries ever filmed. 

Chernov and his editors don’t cut any corners on the range of human emotions displayed. There is grief, pervasive and unyielding: “Who will return our children to us?!” wails the mother who witnessed two children, 5 and 7 years old, die in a basement where she was hiding. (Her own child was miraculously spared and is pictured peacefully sleeping on her lap.)  

There is anger, raw and unfiltered: “Show Putin the bastard the eyes of this child!” screams the emergency trauma doctor to Chernov, as his medical team tries and fails to revive little Evangelina.  

There is even some dark humor: “The whole world is falling apart and here we are smoking,” joke three emergency responders on an unsanctioned break.  

“Why” is perhaps the word used most frequently throughout the film. As Russian bombs fall on the city, the frightened residents ask it of each other and of Chernov; Chernov in turn asks it of the first responders and the remaining Ukrainian military in the city; and, like a knife to the heart, it is the primal scream of Kirill’s, Evangelina’s, and Ilya’s, parents, as we witness the paramedics fail to save their children’s lives.  

Chernov’s own narrative is another remarkable aspect of this film. He is from Kharkiv, another major Ukrainian city that is on the front lines of the invasion. He is the father of two young daughters, and he wonders if he will ever see them again. He knows he is an eyewitness to history and bears that heavy cross stoically throughout the film. He knows he may not make it out alive, but this is not about him anymore, but the footage that the world must see.  

Chernov attended a screening of the film in Colleyville, Texas, on March 1 and told the audience that only sheer good fortune prevented him from suffering the fate of another director, a Lithuanian named Mantas Kvedaravicius, whom the Russians summarily executed as he was trying to flee the city. Vladimir, the man who evacuated Chernov along with his own family through a dozen Russian military checkpoints, would become one of his closest friends.  

The 30 hours of footage that Chernov and Maloletka manage to send from Mariupol is the only reason the world knows about the heinous crimes against humanity Russia committed there.  

As shown in the film, Russian officials have decried the city’s destruction as “Western propaganda” and blame the Ukrainians for all the damage done to Mariupol. Without Chernov’s footage, many people around the world would probably believe this fabrication, along with Russia’s broader narrative that Mariupol was part of the “liberation of the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine” from the “Nazi Ukrainian regime.” 

The film shatters these blatant Russian lies. The vast majority of Mariupol’s residents – including Evangelina’s, Ilya’s, and Kirill’s parents – are Russian speakers.  

Only a little Ukrainian is spoken in the film. There’s an excerpt from President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech announcing the full-scale invasion. And the Ukrainian special forces team that rescued Chernov from a hospital where he was hiding, completely surrounded by Russian forces, spoke the language.   

In Mariupol, the only butcher of Russian speakers is Vladimir Putin, who is accordingly cursed out for it by the city’s residents.  

No one knows exactly how many people died during the 83-day siege of Mariupol. Human Rights Watch estimates are among the lowest, at 8,000 killed. But  Ukrainian figures show up to 87,000 may have perished. We may never know the truth, because Russia continues to occupy the city and is actively erasing the evidence of its crimes.  

This is why 20 Days in Mariupol is an important achievement.  

The world must not forget Evangelina, Ilya, and Kirill. The world must not forget Mariupol. The world must not forget who murdered them. Through his heroic efforts, Chernov has achieved these goals.