Sundance documentary filmed half a world away brings Utah residents to tears

“20 Days in Mariupol” shows Ukrainian journalists photos and video footage from the port city during war with Russia.

The Q&A session following a showing of “20 Days in Mariupol,” a Sundance world cinema documentary at the Gateway Megaplex on Saturday, began with tears.

For Lehi resident Anya Beus, who wore earrings with the Ukraine coat of arms and tennis shoes with the Ukrainian flag and words “Slava Ukraini,” the film was emotional and personal. Beus was one of several Utah Ukrainians in the audience at the screening. She is originally from Mariupol.

Though her face was red from crying throughout the movie, she spoke to the crowded theater about her friends and family in Ukraine.

“When [the invasion] first started, I felt pain in my bones,” Beus told The Tribune. “I’ve never loved Ukraine more than those first few months.”

Beus hasn’t been back to Ukraine since 2013, and said they were able to get her father out of the country a mere month before the invasion. She said he doesn’t like to talk about it, and everything he owned is gone.

When she told the film team — director Mstyslav Chernov, field producer Vasilisa Stepanenko, photographer Evgeniy Maloletka and editor Michelle Mizner — leading the Q&A she was from Mariupol, Chernov stepped forward to embrace her in a hug.

The 94-minute film strings together 20 days of video and photo footage from the two AP Ukrainian journalists (Chernov and Maloletka have covered the war-torn country since 2014). They captured it on the ground in Mariupol when the port city was invaded by Russia in early 2022.

There was no escaping the atrocities of war shown on the screen: parents wailing over the bodies of their dead children (one as young as 18 months old), bodies in a mass grave, shell-shocked citizens forced to leave their homes, many covered in blood.

Some of their shocking footage has been seen around the world already, like the image of a pregnant woman on a stretcher, carried from a bombed hospital. Both she and her baby later died.

“I know that it’s not easy to watch,” Chernov said. “But I want to put this into perspective: These are 20 days, right? It has been almost a year of the full-scale invasion ... what you’ve seen here, happens every day.”

The end of the film listed a total death toll of 25,000 — but even that figure was an estimate.

(Evgeniy Maloletka | AP) A Ukrainian serviceman takes a photograph of a damaged church after shelling in a residential district in Mariupol, Ukraine, Thursday, March 10, 2022.

The documentary, narrated by Chernov, also touches on issues surrounding credible news, propaganda and communication issues.

A collage of Russian news segments show allegations that the footage AP journalist’s documented of a bombed maternity ward were staged.

The journalists’ reaction, Chernov told The Tribune was, “We’ve been working a lot in the Ukraine, this is not the first time the misinformation or the propaganda turns things ... we are journalists, we just do our jobs. We don’t need to respond to any propaganda.”

The task at hand, Chernov said, is to keep informing people and showing them what is happening.

Beus said those scenes of the Russian media were “infuriating” to watch. “They’re not [fake news] because I have friends who have had to crawl under the shelling to get out of the city.”

In the film itself, the journalists have difficulties finding a signal and internet to file to editors. Some Ukrainian subjects even question on camera who is responsible for the bombing: the Ukrainian army or Russian government.

In some cases, Chernov said they have followed up with sources from the footage: doctors from the hospital who treated injuries and victims and soldiers who helped them escape.

“Those that are looking for the source of truth, they will be able to find it because of films like this, because of messages like this, because of journalists like this,” Beus said.