A House Made of Splinters

A House Made of Splinters ★★★½

"When one child leaves, another one arrives."

Finally available for a larger audience to view after a curious release strategy and zero promotional materials sent to various guilds, the Academy Award- and Independent Spirit Award-nominated documentary from Simon Lereng Wilmont earned its accolades and is a fine film but prospective viewers may expect something different from this feature about a war-torn Eastern Ukraine. Будинок зі скалок ["A House Made of Splinters"] is timely for sure with respect to the director's focus on conflict though if you're looking for a documentary on the Russian invasion into their western neighbor this isn't exactly that.

That's because the story we see in this work of resilience and hope is made entirely before 2022, and while Russia has been encroaching on Ukrainian territory since 2014 – see Wilmont's previous Oscar-shortlisted film The Distant Barking of Dogs – the filmmaker basically comes right back to the same area for this doc, essentially a follow-up to that perhaps superior one.

For years that area, though, has been seeing war anyway, a Russian-backed separatist movement looking to tear away this part of Ukraine. Drug abuse, unemployment, extreme poverty, and deaths of despair are rampant, not to mention the military casualties to thousands of young men. (The most common issue is clearly chronic alcoholism.) With government services hard to access, and parents pushed to the brink and making difficult choices, those neglected or abandoned children – some also, of course, orphans – others have stepped up to care for these most precious resources. This is where Wilmont films, at a temporary orphanage in Lysychansk for children with nowhere to go or for whom the government has seen it necessary to place them in the meantime. Here they wait for home life to improve or an adoption to materialize.

Among the kids and preteens we meet Eva, Sasha, and Kolya, each with their own stories of abandonment or neglect. But this isn't a film that wallows in sorrow and pain, though it's hard to get away from the reality outside the walls of this safe space. In fact Wilmot spends much of his time filming the kids being kids, either distracted by their patient and loving caretakers or hanging out together and bonding with new friends. Sometimes the stories are harrowing, sometimes silly, sometimes mundane. But they also seem to carry tremendous emotional weight, and as months go by – and some children spend years waiting – we see the kids have to persevere because it's all they know. Hopes are raised, anticipations collapse, fears are realized, dreams deferred. And repeat.

Wilmont could of course bring us any orphanage in the world but one in Eastern Ukraine seems more meaningful, as the Donbas saw Russia's attempted siege. Documenting two years here means a significant amount of footage and it's edited sometimes in a way that shows he wasn't sure what kind of story to tell, and instead went for the full gamut of emotions. That's an honest presentation but a frequently unfocused one. The brief rays of hope and calls to home for promises of change are fleeting but vital, and even with any earth-shattering cinematic moments there's much to admire in the lives brought to us in A House Made of Splinters. He must have earned an incredible amount of trust to film in the vérité style he does, with no interviews and the kids almost never acknowledging the existence of the camera.

Every review probably concludes with this – recall, it premiered before the new war began – but I cannot help but wonder where they are now.

Friend who wrote a better review than me: Christopher Haskell.
Find others like them on my two special lists here and here!

Added to The Documentary Films of 2022, ranked.
Added to 2023 Independent Spirit Awards nominees, ranked.
Added to 2023 Academy Awards nominees, ranked.

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