Please note that this review contains references to self-harm and mental illness.
We first encounter Kolya wiping his own graffiti from the doors of a halfway house. He cuts a rebellious figure, using the same marker pen with which he first defaced the doors to draw on his own body. He prominently displays the word “Joker” on one forearm. His other is criss-crossed with small, self-inflicted cuts and scratches. Kolya lives in this facility after his alcoholic mother was deemed incapable of caring for him. Here he will remain, with two younger siblings, until either his mother recovers to the satisfaction of authorities or he is separated from his family and sent alone to an orphanage. Time is running out: if the first option takes too long, the second becomes inevitable.
This is not any random halfway house. It is located in Lysychansk, a little over 100 kilometres from Luhansk, Ukraine. It has been in a state of civil war and the victim of Russian military aggression since 2014. The war is not on the home’s doorstep, but it represents a towering and ever-present shadow looming over everything that happens here. Unemployment is high. Morale is low. A House Made of Splinters, a documentary directed by Denmark’s Simon Lereng Wilmont, showcases the most vulnerable and undeserving victims of that situation: abandoned children.
It would be easy for such a film to collapse into tragedy on a level approaching some sort of pornography, but it is a testament to Wilmont’s immense skill that it emerges as an emotionally powerful and uplifting experience. It is delicately observed, choosing to sit back in a classic ‘fly on the wall’ style and let its various protagonists tell their own story. Some of them, like Kolya’s, are particularly heart-breaking to watch. Others have much happier endings. When place alongside one another, they paint an honest and hugely emotive portrait of humanity: good, bad, and everything in between. It is, not to be too overly emphatic about it, a distillation of real human drama.
Wilmont’s film was completed well before Russia’s open invasion of Ukraine in 2022, but it still shows the murky, awful effect of war on civilian populations. This is not Wilmont’s first exploration of the situation either: his 2017 work The Distant Barking of Dogs focused on orphan life much closer to the front line, making this feel like another part of a much larger, more powerful picture. It seems vital that there are filmmakers like this entering the region and telling such important stories. It is fortunate that they are talented, creative, and personal as Wilmont appears to be.
On paper it all sounds so miserable, but the best element of A House Made of Splinters is the manner in which it maneuvres past the tragedy to capture a genuine reflection of childhood. Wilmont manages to capture such unexpected hope and joy within such a sad situation. It lingers on the edge and exists in moments – a child unwrapping a present, or enjoying how the light filters through a patterned curtain. When such moments arrive, they puncture. This exceptional documentary is proof of why the medium is so important, and so fulfilling. It is one of the best films of 2022 to date.
A House Made of Splinters is screening at the 2022 Melbourne International Film Festival. For more information, click here.