From ‘Flee,’ ‘The Act of Killing’ Producer, ’A House Made of Splinters’ Bows at Sundance With Chronicle of Neglect

·6 min read

On the Eastern border of Ukraine in the Donbas region is the city of Lysychansk, only 90 kilometers from Lugansk, where along the bank of the Donets lies the Lysychansk Center for the Social and Psychological Rehabilitation of Children.

This halfway house serves as a momentary intervention for neglected and at-risk children while the state decides where to place them. It is there that director Simon Lereng Wimont, who was shortlisted for an Oscar with his last film “The Distant Barking of Dogs,” filmed his new documentary “A House Made of Splinters” which will world premiere at Sundance in the World Cinema Documentary Competition.

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Cinephil is handling world sales for the film.

Produced by Monica Hellström of Final Cut for Real – whose credits include “Flee,” currently challenging for documentary and international feature Oscars, as well as “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence” – and Sami Jahnukainen of Donkey Hotel, it profiles three children living at the center and their wish to go home – a goal their compassionate social workers and caretakers labor tirelessly to accomplish, regardless of how “home” may end up defined. The children are forced to grow up quickly at the center, learning the pain of a lineage of alcoholism and violence, and themselves serving as the only chance for its end.

“A House Made of Splinters” is a stirring glimpse at the power of care in the world of a child, and its story serves as a flicker of hope where one is needed most.

Variety spoke with Wilmont ahead of the film’s premiere at Sundance.

How did you learn about the Lysychansk Center for the Social and Psychological Rehabilitation of Children? What inspired this story?

In my previous film, “The Distant Barking of Dogs,” I followed a young boy Oleg and his beloved grandmother Alexandra living together in a small house very close to the frontline of the war in Eastern Ukraine. During the filming, Alexandra developed heart problems, and I realized just how fragile that precious life they had built together was. I started to worry about him, and I needed to know what might happen to him, if she suddenly wasn’t around to look after him anymore.

So I started researching with my Ukrainian assistant director Azad Safarov, and we discovered that due to the traumatic effects of the conflict in the region there were a lot of children who had been removed from their parents because of alcoholism, domestic violence and/or neglect. We also found that there are these temporary shelters across the region where the children go for up to nine months until the state figures out what to do with them – some go back home if the parents better themselves, some are adopted by a foster family, and some go to live in a state-run orphanage. This of course didn’t directly reflect Oleg’s situation, but the whole tragic situation gave me a sense of the devastating impact of the long-term and less-visible consequences of the war, and it was something I knew I needed to explore more.

During our research we went to a number of orphanages and shelters, but when I first stepped over the threshold of the shelter where this film takes place, I instantly knew it was a very special place. It was relatively small and somewhat run-down, but it was clean, colorful and cozy, and the staff seemed to do their best to make do with the few resources they had available. There were old, but colorful wallpapers in the bedrooms, kids drawing scattered all over in the offices, and the kids were hanging out or hugging the staff every time they had the chance. This was so different from what I had witnessed elsewhere, it made me fall in love with the place.

The children of the Lysychansk Center seem quite comfortable being filmed. Was this difficult to achieve, or did it occur naturally?

Most of the kids were super curious and open right from the get-go when we started hanging out at the shelter. I think both me – as a foreign filmmaker, and the whole idea of making a film on the shelter, was a very welcome distraction from their everyday life.

I do most of my own filming, because I really value working in the intimate space that I am able to create, when it’s just me with a simple camera set-up and my subjects, rather than a whole crew with big lights and equipment. In my experience it makes it so much easier to establish that all important two-way trust, which is essential for the camera to blend into our shared every day. At some point it becomes an indifferent piece of equipment or kind of an extra friend in our group. That’s when the magic usually starts happening, and I am able to capture the most emotionally honest scenes.

Can you speak about alcoholism and how it plays a role in the lives of these children and their parents? It seems to be a recurring theme.

The parents drinking way too much vodka is without a doubt one of the most common reasons that the kids are taken away from their families, but really, alcoholism is a symptom of the rapidly growing social problems in the region. These problems can continue to run through generations, if they are not stopped, and this is where the shelter comes into the picture because the kids are the key to breaking the cycle. The staff is warm-hearted and incredibly professional at the same time, and even though they have been doing this tough job for ages, they still manage to hold on to their humanity and their will to make a difference. They genuinely care for the kids. So instead of solely focusing on the problems, I wanted to show just how beautiful and precious this haven is in contrast to the stark reality outside the shelter. The shelter nurtures these kids’ ability to survive, adapt, and find the magic in life despite the tragic circumstances, and that is the real bright light in the darkness of this war-torn region.

How does continued conflict between Russia and Ukraine exacerbate the issues raised in “A House Made of Splinters”?

As far as I understand, the social problems are not new to the Donbas region, but the war has worked like a pressure-cooker on the already existing problems, that are now on the brink of spiralling completely out of control. As the war grinds on, few and fewer want to invest in the unstable and risky land along the frontline. So more and more resources and jobs disappear, and with limited social security, an increasing amount of people end up living in poverty. This leads to hopelessness, often results in alcoholism, domestic violence and neglect, and in the end kids being taken away by the social authorities. Obviously the recent resurgence of tension on the frontline only hastens this tragic spiral in Donbas, which is so terrible in itself, but also not unique to eastern Ukraine.

I am convinced such tragic spirals of social problems are at work in most conflict zones around the world today, and I think we need to focus as much as we can on how to stop them, and that is one of the reasons why I made this film.

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