Simon Lereng Wilmont’s A House Made of Splinters begins with a title card situating the action in the Ukrainian city of Lysychansk, described as “20 kilometers from the frontline.”
It’s the last time that “the frontline,” which has Ukraine back in headlines again this week, is mentioned in the documentary, premiering in competition at Sundance. A House Made of Splinters assumes that you have some awareness of the years of unrest in Ukraine — some sense of the source of the movie’s bleakness.
A House Made of Splinters
The fly-on-the-wall style captures moments of heartbreaking openness.
Without context — Wilmont’s earlier The Distant Barking of Dogs lays some groundwork for this doc, even if they’re not directly connected — viewers are dropped into a children’s shelter in Eastern Ukraine and left to decide whether to focus on the somber surface or the fleeting rays of light after an 87-minute snapshot of the youngest victims in a teetering country. I found A House Made of Splinters to be more heartbreaking than hopeful, but I admired the moments of beauty that Wilmont delivers in a film that isn’t quite consistent enough in its storytelling approach.
The Lysychansk Center for The Social and Psychological Rehabilitation of Children is designed to be temporary. Children can only stay there for nine months before they have to either find guardianship or be sent off to orphanages. Thanks to a small team of social workers — it’s truly hard to tell if there are two or three or more — the center isn’t a depressing place, though its Eastern European-standard external architecture might lead you to expect that. Inside, the walls are colorful. The rooms are overpacked, but also littered with well-loved toys. The kids celebrate holidays and even get the occasional visitor in a unicorn or Elsa costume. They can watch Peppa Pig. The orphanages, we’re led to suspect, would be far worse.
But the center is part of a cycle. The kids who leave with a relative or a foster parent or even an actual parent promising newfound sobriety often return months later. In some cases, they return years later to visit their own children, confiscated by the State.
Most of what I just explained is told to us in voiceovers from the social workers — both a cheat in terms of the movie’s general vérité aesthetic and proof that at some point the social workers had conversations with Wilmont, presumably addressed directly to the camera, but mostly were cut out of the film. It’s vestigial artificial structuring in a movie that does better when it’s more purely fly-on-the-wall.
There’s enough structure that comes from Wilmont’s focus on three of the shelter’s juvenile wards. As one reaches the end of their tenure, the next moves into a central role.
Eva, a repeat resident, knows her mother is an alcoholic, but phones home regularly despite fully expecting not to get an answer. She wants to go home with her grandmother, but the system isn’t designed to make anything that easy.
Sasha, with a Ramona Quimby bob, has even less expectation of returning home, since her own alcoholic mother basically abandoned her to fend for herself. Distressingly resigned to her fate, Sasha finds friendship first with a doll she received as a Christmas present and then with Alina, an equally sad-eyed girl.
Finally there’s Kolya, whose rebellious streak — he hangs out with the older boys who smoke and give themselves rudimentary prison-style tattoos — covers for a fierce devotion to his younger siblings. Their mother at least visits, but Kolya can recognize the smell of alcohol on her breath.
Wilmont served as his own cinematographer on A House Made of Splinters and one can only assume that his ability to work with a skeleton crew contributed to the film’s intimacy. It’s fair to wonder if these kids are simply too broken down from their pre-shelter experiences to be self-conscious in front of the camera, as if PTSD and naturalism go hand-in-miserable-hand. Whether the credit goes to Wilmont or trauma, the result is astonishing.
The camera just lingers on Eva, Sasha and Kolya, and they exist, projecting the weight of the world for much of the time and then bursts of jubilation that pretty much tore me to pieces. A moment like Sasha and Alina deciding to be best friends and pretending to be ghosts wrapped in a translucent curtain — or the unfettered and tearful ebullience when a child trained to expect only bad news hears something good — will either fill you with relief at the resilience of youth or cause you to flash back to our being told about the cycles of recidivism at the shelter.
It was mostly an off-hand, questionably phrased comment from a politician that put Ukraine back above the fold in this week’s news. The situation that’s the unmentioned backdrop in A House Made of Splinters has been ongoing whether the American media chooses to mention it or not, and Wilmont understands the value of putting a face on tragedy, especially the face of an innocent. Even if A House Made of Splinters can’t completely decide if it wants to tell a story or the repetition of devastation and ephemeral uplift is enough, the faces here linger long after the movie ends.