I wasn’t expecting to have to review this movie so early. Until little more than a week before the 85th Academy Awards, Simon Lereng Wilmont’s film about Ukrainian children didn’t even have an American distribution deal. PBS and POV swooped in just in time, acquiring the rights to a film that nobody had on their predictions and yet ultimately landed a surprise nomination for Best Documentary Feature alongside more recognised titles All That Breathes, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Fire of Love and Navalny (all titles we have looked at over the last year).
The movie had of course been on my radar for a while. Wilmont’s previous film, The Distant Barking of Dogs, was one of the great documentaries of the 2010s. A House Made of Splinters doesn’t quite reach the five-star heights of that one, because it has less of a laser focus. But it’s a beautiful, aching story and it is definitely not just making up the numbers on the Academy’s five.
Wilmont’s film—only his second as a solo filmmaker, but fourth overall—is set at a children’s care home in the town of Lysychansk in Eastern Europe. It’s not quite an orphanage, rather a place where children go before an orphanage, a foster family, or reunification with their parents, where they receive meals and shelter and friendship and in many cases their first real taste of authority and structure. It is noted at the start that Lysychansk is 20km from the “frontline”, although filming timelines would suggest this is not the frontline as we know it now. Whatever the case, the military doesn’t actually play a part in Splinters’ narrative. Unlike The Distant Barking of Dogs, where the daily presence of armed forces leads one innocent young boy towards a violent future, here it is the daily absence of parents. These children have been removed from families due to their inability to parent, typically because of alcohol addiction.
Wilmont focuses on four of the home’s inhabitants, three girls and one boy, at various parts of their journey. Some will end up being adopted, with family or in a state-run orphanage. While there are tears whenever the children leave, at one point one of the carers quite bluntly suggests that they will probably see many of them in the future, except then it will be as parents whose own kids have been taken away due to the cycles of poverty that are so difficult to escape. The current escalation of war that lingers over the viewing of Splinters only makes the daunting realities of these children’s futures all the more desperately sad.
Working as his own cinematographer, Wilmont favours low-on-the-ground naturalism that isn’t obtrusive to his pre-teen and teenage subjects. From their level, the camera watches as they play with toys, get reprimanded, and as they argue. In one of the more amusing sequences, one girl asks another to be her best friend. In response, the second girl lays down the ground rules and only then will she consider it. You gotta respect that. In another, a talking robotic doll appears to malfunction in the sort of lighthearted moment of brevity that a film like this would not normally give over its precious minutes to.
A House Made of Splinters is tough stuff, don’t get me wrong, but it isn’t all grim and dark. The adults who operate the centre genuinely care for the children (this isn’t Matilda Goes to Ukraine or something like that) and it is able to capture emotions that soar. Wilmont recognizes that pain that sits behind each of these child’s eyes, knowing full well that they are here because (in many cases) their parent doesn’t want them anymore or (in the others) can’t take care of them. But the smartness in choosing his protagonists makes this more than just a journey through miserabilism, but rather a demonstration of their resilience and the wisdom of these kids.
Still, to ignore the pain and the heartbreak would be disingenuous. He does so by observing attentively, letting these children tell their story with all of the messiness that you would expect from kids whose education has been stunted by violence and neglect. It’s the skill of Wilmont, bolstered by the sublime and economical editing of Michael Aaglund and Marion Tuor, that means it is always handled delicately, unvarnished and makes for compelling and intimate filmmaking. It’s a balance, but it works.
These children and their adult carers in Lysychansk don’t have the benefit of too many happy endings (and lord knows what has happened since the escalation of war), but in A House Made of Splinters—where pain burrows in under the skin and sits until it is extracted and healing can begin—they are granted a witness to show their humanity to the world.