Ukraine: Film pays tribute to children growing up amid conflict

16 Oct

Just a few days before Russia once again carried out a massive missile attack across Ukraine on October 10, Danish documentary filmmaker Simon Lereng Wilmont was in Kyiv for the Ukrainian premiere of his latest film, "A House Made of Splinters."


Without knowing that explosions would soon be sending Kyivans back to their shelters in subway stations, it felt good to meet his film's protagonists again at the screening and share the project with them. The documentary, shot over a year in 2019-2020, is set in Lysychansk, a strategically important city in the Luhansk Oblast in eastern Ukraine. It has been affected by the conflict since 2014, but it also became a center of military battles in the summer of 2022.

Military clashes are not part of the story in "A House Made of Splinters." Instead, it portrays children living in a temporary group foster home located in Lysychansk. But their fate is part of the larger story of war, with children facing neglect through the loss of family members in the conflict, or their parents' alcoholism and mental illness resulting from war-related PTSD.

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"Obviously there were social issues in this region already before the war started in 2014, but with the war being in their back garden, so to speak, for so many years, the resources slowly got drained," filmmaker Simon Lereng Wilmont tells DW. He added that joblessness and the lack of support from the state have led to a spiral of social issues, "And that's the more invisible but no less forceful consequences of having the war so close to your civil society."

"A House Made of Splinters" portrays children from these torn families as they land in the Lysychansk Center in Eastern Ukraine, a shelter where they are taken care of for up to nine months while awaiting court custody decisions. The documentary follows different children as they make friends in the shelter, wait for their parents to visit — they are often disappointed as the parents don't show up — all while waiting for someone else to determine their fates.

Through their games and exchanges with the other children in the center, the children indirectly reveal how, despite their young age, they already know way too much about substance abuse and domestic violence. The women running the center are also searching for long-term solutions for the children. For the lucky ones, a relative might accept to take them on, or a foster family might be found. But for the others, the overloaded state orphanage becomes the next home.

An unexploded missile now stuck in the roof of the children's shelter

On February 24, the day of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the civil administration reacted very quickly and managed to get all the children from the shelter and Lysychansk state orphanage out of the area. They were brought to safety in the West; some of them even found refuge further into Europe later on, Wilmont reports.

Wilmont met members of the staff of the children's home at the Kyiv premiere of the film, and they told him that a missile went through the roof of the living room of their shelter. But it didn't explode. "So it's just like stuck in the ceiling," says Wilmont. "That gives you a really picturesque description of the situation right now."

Award-winning works

Wilmont's previous film, "The Distant Barking of Dogs" (2017), also tells a story from a child's perspective, as it follows a 10-year-old boy and his grandmother living right next to the frontline throughout a year during the war in Donbas.

Now as "A House Made of Splinters" is shown in various festivals throughout Europe, it is also collecting accolades. It has won the Politiken: Dox Award at the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival and has been shortlisted for the upcoming European Film Awards' best documentary prize. 

But despite his experience filming award-winning documentaries in the conflict zone, Wilmont is hesitant to return for another project covering the war, as he feels that his skilled Ukrainian filmmaking colleagues might be better placed than him to tell this particular chapter of their own history.

He hasn't ruled out making a third film in Ukraine, but for now, he sees his role as promoting his existing documentaries, to "try to make the world keep wanting to hear about the things that are going on in Ukraine."

A screening for Zelenskyy

Indeed, "A House Made of Splinters" could also have a direct impact on policies in the country itself. At the Kyiv premiere, the Ombudsman for Children's Rights and Children's Affairs in Ukraine was at the screening and said that she was very touched by the story. She told the filmmaker that she wanted to organize a closed screening for the Ukrainian president and some of his advisers on the subject. For Wilmont, this feels like a very concrete achievement.

The film, says the director, carries a number of important points that might be taken into consideration when the Ukrainians rebuild their country, such as creating smaller foster homes to replace the impersonal state orphanages and setting up treatment centers to tackle alcoholism. But, as the filmmaker also points out, that will only happen "once they've thrown out the Russians." 

Simon Lereng Wilmont will be presenting his film "A House Made of Splinters" on October 14 at the Filmfest Osnabrück and on October 15 at the Human Rights Film Festival Berlin. The documentary is also available for streaming through the Berlin festival's platform until October 31. The organization Save the Children is a partner of the screenings. 


Edited by: Sarah Hucal

Author Elizabeth Grenier


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