Screen the Oscar®-nominated documentary 20 Days in Mariupol and see how it hits the Save the Cat! story beats.

Written and Directed by: Mstyslav Chernov
Genre: Golden Fleece (road, team, prize)

Opening Image: Outside a hospital window in Mariupol, smoke rises on the horizon. Tanks have been sighted with the letter “Z” on them, the Russian sign of war. “The hospital is surrounded,” says journalist Mstyslav Chernov. “Dozens of doctors, hundreds of patients, and us. I have no illusions about what will happen to us if we are caught.”

Theme Stated: Chernov says, “Someone once told me, ‘Wars don’t start with explosions. They start with silence.’” This is the thematic premise of this documentary: the importance of documenting the atrocities of war, using the footage to sound a megaphone to the world.

Set-Up: February 24, 2022 begins as a normal day in the city, though there is growing tension of possible Russian military action. Knowing that Mariupol will be one of the invasion targets, the team of journalists head there. On television, Vladimir Putin declares that Russia’s actions are self-defense against an outside threat.

By the time the journalists arrive in the city of Mariupol, bombings are already happening against military targets. History seems to repeat itself, as eight years before, Russia tried to take the city due to its large port and proximity to Crimea.

Arriving at the Left Bank, the journalists encounter a citizen concerned for her safety. Chernov attempts to calm her down, stating that the Russians don’t attack citizens.

Catalyst: An hour later, the neighborhood is hit with shells. Chernov notes that he was wrong; the Russians have attacked civilians.

Debate: Citizens begin to take shelter throughout the city. Many do not want to be filmed, and Chernov wonders whether he and his team should capture the footage. However, as more and more people flee their homes, taking refuge in darkened basements, the toll of the attack becomes clear. “News comes in from all over Ukraine,” Chernov says, “and I cannot get over the feeling that something terrible is going to happen to this city.”

Break into Two: While the journalists stay at a hospital in the city, an ambulance arrives. One of the victims is a child. As doctors attempt to save her life, one of them implores Chernov and his team to film the event. “Show this Putin bastard the eyes of this child and all these doctors who are crying… keep filming.” Chernov’s purpose is clear.

Fun & Games: Once an independent country, Ukraine is now under siege in this upside-down antithesis world. There is no fun and there are no games, but the promise of the premise—the cornerstone of this story beat—is fulfilled as Chernov captures the horrors of this war.

After the four-year-old girl is pronounced dead, we see footage of Russia’s tactics that have been captured by Chernov and his team, now shared with the world via international news. By March 2, Russia has caused problems with the internet and electricity. Other international journalists have left; it is up to Chernov and his team to document the war now, staying with the medics.

Among the footage they capture is a man grieving his dead 16-year-old son whose legs were blown off while he was playing soccer with his friends. The battle on the front line continues as the Russians try to break into the city. A mother and father bring their 18-month-old baby to the hospital to treat his head trauma. He does not survive, and Chernov captures the heart-rending response of the mother, who cries out, “Why?” as she collapses into her husband’s embrace.

The plight of the city grows worse, as more infrastructure is destroyed. Chernov and his team want to leave the hospital to find a signal that will allow them to send the footage out. In the city, they discover people looting a mall and turning on each other. Soldiers attempt to control the crowd, and Chernov notes, “When we were in the hospital, one of the doctors told me, ‘War is like an X-ray. All human insides become visible. Good people become better. Bad people worse.’”

Midpoint: That night, as artillery rains down on the city, the journalist team’s phones suddenly pick up a connection. Chernov sends the footage out in small bits, and it soon makes its way to the rest of the world. It’s a false victory, of course, as the release of the footage won’t end the war. But at least the silence has been broken, and the stakes have been raised: the world cannot remain ignorant to Ukraine’s plight.

Bad Guys Close In: By day 14, Chernov states, “Like a disease, war is taking over the city.” His team captures horrific images of bodies lying facedown in the open, bloody stretchers, and more. Workers pile bodies in the trenches of a mass grave, one telling the camera, “I don’t know what I feel right now. What are people supposed to feel in this situation? The main thing is that this needs to end. I don’t know who’s to blame, who is right, who unleashed all of this. But let them all be damned.”

Back in the city, the journalists take refuge from planes dropping bombs; going to the location of the destruction, they discover that the bombs have hit the surgical wing of a maternity ward. As responders arrive, Chernov documents the devastation, and one of the police officers makes a statement to the camera, describing the events that happened and declaring that Russian troops are committing war crimes, pleading with the international community for help.

Finding a spot with an internet signal, Chernov sends the footage. This time, Russian officials address the release, claiming it is fake and propaganda created with actors. As the siege rages on, the journalists document the work of medical staff and survivors in a hospital, capturing their experiences and emotions. They learn that a Russian sniper has shot a nurse who tried to exit the hospital, and several soldiers are trapped outside.

All Is Lost: The documentary revisits the scene from the Opening Image, the Russian war tanks breaking through and surrounding the hospital. There’s a clear whiff of death as the tanks turn their cannons toward the hospital. With no internet connection in the building, the journalists must decide whether or not to risk their lives to get the footage out to the world.

Dark Night of the Soul: At night, Chernov considers all that has happened. “I want all of this to stop, but I have no power over it,” he states. “My memory keeps carrying me back home and back to war. If someday my daughters ask me, ‘What did you do to stop this madness, this sadistic virus of destruction?’… I want to be able to give them an answer.”

Break into Three: Chernov and his team continue filming. Though they are trapped, he knows they must tell the story.

Finale: A special military task force arrives to help the journalists get to safety. They race through the streets, taking shelter to avoid being seen. They stop at a hospital, where one of the doctors takes them to the basement, showing them body bags. Continuing on their journey, the journalists travel by car through occupied territory and Russian checkpoints, cameras and hard drives hidden, and ultimately join a Red Cross convoy to reach safety.

Final Image: The documentary concludes with footage that Chernov and his team captured and shared with the world. As the Russian Ambassador to the UN is confronted by reporters, he states, “I’ve seen so many fakes. Who wins the information war, [is] the one who wins the war.”