‘A House Made Of Splinters’ Beats Odds To Make Oscar Shortlist

Big outlets like HBO Documentary Films, Neon, and National Geographic dominate the Oscar documentary feature shortlist this year. But a few films without major backers managed to make it through, including one film with no American distributor at all – Simon Lereng Wilmont’s A House Made of Splinters.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to secure U.S. distribution. So, we’ve made it this far all by ourselves,” says the Danish director with a laugh. “It’s kind of like déjà vu with my last film, The Distant Barking of Dogs, where it was exactly the same situation.”

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Both his previous film and A House Made of Splinters unfold in Eastern Ukraine, a region where Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian army forces engaged in fierce battle well before Russia’s full-scale invasion last February. The constant fighting from 2014 onward applied severe pressure on civilian populations, leading to an increase in unemployment, alcoholism and drug addiction. Many adults who floundered ended up neglecting their children; it is these kind of kids who occupy the frame in A House Made of Splinters.

“Every 10th door hides a broken family,” observes a social worker who works with children sent to live in a temporary orphanage — the “house” referred to in the film’s title. Wilmont filmed within its walls for over a year. The boys and girls sheltered there were removed from their parents by court order for their protection.

One boy tells fellow kids his dad beat him when he was drunk and once stabbed his mother.

“Was there a lot of blood?” the kids ask. “Yeah, a whole pool of blood.”

A girl tells one of the shelter’s adult caregivers wistfully, “I want [my mom] to stop drinking so we can start all over again.”

Three children — Eva, Sasha and Kolya – take center stage in the film.

“I was drawn to Eva because of the look in her eye,” the director recalls. “It had both sadness and joy, and she was doing these cartwheels all the time. And sometimes it seemed like that was her way of getting the anger out, and sometimes it was to celebrate how happy she was.”

As for Sasha, “She seemed to be living in her own little world. But contrary to a lot of the other kids, she didn’t seem unhappy to be there.”

Young Kolya makes like he’s got a thick skin, but when his mother visits the shelter (the smell of beer on her breath) she pulls him close and he begins to cry. His arms are streaked with cuts, apparently self-inflicted, and he draws tattoos on himself in permanent marker, including one that says “Joker.” When he’s not looking after his much younger brother and sister, he associates with older kids who tend to act up. 

“Kolya, he’s just a charmer, you know?” Wilmont says. “If I was still a boy of 14, that’s the guy I would hang out with. You’re absolutely sure you would be going on adventures. They might be dangerous at times, but they will always be interesting… But on the inside, he’s a sensitive boy. Taking care of his younger siblings [at the shelter]… the love he has for them I thought was so moving.”

Wilmont also worked closely with kids in The Distant Barking of Dogs. He’s developed a method to accustom his subjects to filming.

“I take out the camera from the very beginning. I keep it with me always. So it becomes something common in our everyday interactions, almost like a phone or something like that,” he notes. “From the very beginning I also film a little bit, but not something that is going to be very important because I know from previous experience that the kids are super curious as to how does this actually work. They want to see their friends. They want to see themselves, so I spend a lot of time letting them handle the camera, flipping the viewfinder over so they can see themselves…. At some point, having done a lot of this, it becomes boring and then they lose interest in it. That’s part of the process of introducing this piece of equipment, making it [part of] everyday life.”

The temporary orphanage, located on the grounds of a hospital near Lysychansk, becomes a sanctuary for the kids through the remarkable emotional support provided by seasoned caregivers Marharyta, Olga and Anjelika. They comfort the children and speak openly with them about the circumstances they face. But they don’t try to paper over what they’re going through or promise they will eventually be reunited with their parents.

“At one point it seemed almost brutal,” Wilmont says of the caregivers’ conversations with the kids. “But what they said resonated in me that, through years of experience, you know that if you sugarcoat something and it doesn’t turn out the way that you hoped or how you sugarcoated it, it hits double hard with the kids. So, in a way, introducing the truth or the reality in a gentle way, it is almost shielding the kids. At least that’s how I understood it, because then [the kids] can start to prepare for that reality if it comes. But, also, they’re not disappointed because you haven’t made it out to be something that they could hope for, which didn’t happen.”

Production wrapped before last February’s Russian invasion. Since then, most of the kids in the orphanage have been relocated to somewhat safer areas. That’s a good thing, because Lysychansk has witnessed intense fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces. Wilmont says he was told recently that “a missile struck the living room of the shelter, went down through the roof, into the main living area, but it didn’t explode. So, there’s now a missile sticking out of the shelter.”

Disruption, disappointment and trauma became the norm for the children in A House Made of Splinters even before the war erupted full scale. Wilmont looks for glimmers of hope about the prospects for these kids.

“Love is a basic human need, and when children are deprived of family love, they turn to friendships in order to survive,” the director has observed. “Children are incredibly adaptable… In these shelters, they form attachments and friendships as deep and important as family bonds.”

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