Simon Lereng Wilmont on a Foundation of Hope for the Next Generation of Ukrainians in “A House Made of Splinters”

There is no way of knowing how or when conflict will end in Ukraine, which had been under attack from Russia long before its forces formally invaded the country in February of 2022, but “A House Made of Splinters” gives a prescient glimpse of the rebuilding to come that will take far more than concrete and steel. Since beginning to film at the frontlines of the conflict since 2014 where he first set up cameras for his unforgettable “The Distant Barking of Dogs,” Simon Lereng Wilmont has concerned himself with the psychological toll that instability can have on children that know no different, first spending time with a young boy named Oleg in the deserted village of Hnutove where his grandmother Alexandra insisted on staying put in spite of the increasingly common occurrence of bomb blasts and gunfire outside. For a brief moment when Alexandra’s health took a turn for the worse, Wilmont had to consider the possibility of what might happen to Oleg when there was barely any community infrastructure left in the area, leading him to learn more about orphanages that had taken in children whose parental figures had been somehow ripped away by the war.

In the bittersweet “A House Made of Splinters,” Wilmont uncovers those who have rose to the challenge in Margaryta Burlutska and Olga Tronova, the compassionate caretakers at the Lysychansk Center for Social and Psychological Assistance who have established a daily routine for the kids they’ve taken in, providing them some sense of normalcy though violence rages on outside their walls. More than a few of their residents still have parents, only they’ve lost them in ways that may be even more heartbreaking than if they had disappeared altogether when the loss of employment and ongoing strife has led to depression and alcoholism amongst many adults, leaving them unable to take care of themselves, let alone their loved ones. Not long into Wilmont’s latest film do you hear a wrenching call between a young girl named Eva and her mother, unlikely to reunite any time soon when the latter has trouble making it to the phone, but Margaryta, Olga and the assistants in Lysychansk nonetheless make anyone in their care aware that someone is there for them and the director tenderly follows Eva and two other kids, Koyla and Sasha, as they attempt to find their footing, hopefully breaking a cycle that has only been exacerbated further and become far more pervasive as the Russian invasion leaves more broken homes.

After the film’s premiere at Sundance, “A House Made of Splinters” has been making an indelible impact on audiences around the world, culminating recently with its selection on this year’s Academy shortlist for best documentary and recently, Wilmont generously made the time to talk about how he ended up at the Lysychansk Center, only 20 kilometers from the frontline of battle, and kept a small footprint with only himself and his assistant director Azad Safarov to capture the delicate nature of the children as they work through their trauma and start to imagine a future for themselves, as well as the possibility of hope that has emerged as a result of the film’s festival run already.

How did this orphanage come to be the one you focused on?

Because from the really great work of my assistant Ukrainian director Azad Safarov, we got in contact with the Northern part of the Dane frontline in the Eastern part of Ukraine. The local government there had seen my previous film “The Distant Barking of Dogs” and they knew that I was trying to figure out along the frontline if kids are in situations where they have no one to take care of them. [I wondered] where are these kids and how many of them are there and they invited us to come and see for ourselves. We went and they took us to a lot of orphanages, surprisingly for such a small area, and a lot of them were very institutionalized, big state-run places that were good at taking care of the kids’ physical needs, but not so much their emotional needs, so I was actually very much in doubt I would be making a film about this until on one of the last days of my first trip.

I came to Margaryta’s place and the second I stepped over that threshold, there was something so different in the air. They had bright colors on the walls and it was small and a little bit worn out, but they actually posted kids’ drawings on the walls and in one of the rooms, I saw a very beautiful elderly employee trying to teach some of the kids music even though she wasn’t really skilled at doing music herself. At the end of the corridor, Margarita was standing there, hugging two kids while she was screaming something into the phone, telling some people off. [laughs] It just felt so different and so heartwarming and to be honest, I started thinking, “Wow, is it like this all the time? Or is it because they knew I was coming?” [laughs] But I became very intrigued and wanted to find out what makes it like this? And that’s what made me stick around and why I eventually ended up making this film.

When you mentions the drawings and music, it seems like there’s certain rhythms you could start to follow in order to figure out where to be at the right time. Was that the case?

Actually the routine from the shelter is very traditional – [the children] wake up and do a little bit of exercise and then there’s some free time before lunch is served and then school and then again free time and homework. But what actually made it super interesting for me was to be there in the time between the prearranged things that the kids had to do every day because that’s usually where the kids can lead their own life and become friends or fight or start to fall in love or play or dance and make music or tell ghost stories. That’s one of the very special periods of the day where they actually had time for themselves.

And I think all of the kids were super excited that my assistant director and I were there because we represented something from the outside. Not only that, but something completely strange – “why [am I] a guy from faraway Europe here in this remote corner of the earth? And why is he interested in us and our world?” So we became a very welcome addition, like a distraction in their everyday life and we actually had to invent at times ways that the kids could help us to get them out of the way so we could focus more on scenes that we wanted to shoot [between them]. [laughs]

From what I understand, it’s mostly just you and your assistant director filming and he’s Ukrainian. What’s that working relationship like?

Yeah, [Azad’s] my assistant director, my interpreter, my fixer – he’s the one that makes sure we get to meet the right people and that I understand everything that’s being said. He also helps me maneuver in the customs that I might not be familiar with. But more than that, he’s a very dear friend. We joke a lot and he has suggestions, and when it comes to the filming, his job is mostly to make sure I have room to maneuver, so when he sees that I’m starting to record something, we have this unspoken agreement that he will stay away.

The scene that stood out to me was when the boys are up late at night, talking in the dark, and one starts to tell a story about his abusive father. How do you manage to be in the room for a scene like that?

At that point in time, my [Ukranian] language skills were not super-developed, but a little bit, and I was coming into this scene expecting to hear ghost stories. It took me a little bit of time to realize that actually it was not ghost stories being told. I started to recognize words and sentences that had to do with dads and with being drunk and I also thought I heard about a knife and blood, so when I talked with Azad, who had been eavesdropping in on what the kids were saying, the realization came that this is how they entertain each other – they tell scary stories from their life. The stories they told were super scary because it’s about their parents actually being mean towards each other and sometimes mean to them also, but they seem to take a little bit of comfort in [acting like] a mirror to each other, reaffirming that we’re from the same background and we can laugh and make jokes about it now, and it forms some kind of brotherhood that gives us a sense of power or at least a sense of strength.

That scene is really allowed to breathe and the structure is both straightforward but a bit unusual in that you track three subjects and they all really have their own space in the film – you’re not cross-cutting between them. Was that much of a decision?

We thought about mixing the three main characters’ stories a little bit more, but very quickly my brilliant editor Michael Aaglund and I decided that we wanted to do this film chronologically, so as not to interfere. But what actually happened is when Eva, the first child that we follow, leaves in the film, it’s almost at that exact moment [in real life chronologically] that Kolya and Sasha, our two other main subjects, came into the shelter, so we left it in a chronological order and it made sense that we start out with a positive story so we have more room left in us to bear the tragic.

Margaryta’s voiceover is also quite enlivening. How did that come in?

Yeah, I wasn’t planning on making any narration or voiceover, but I spent so many hours in Margaryta’s office drinking coffee and having fun, getting to know her and Olga and very quickly I realized these two women are sitting on a trove of treasure in regards to their experiences. They’ve been working there for 25 to 30 years, and when you work in a span of time that great, they are sure to have made observations that we would never think of. Those experiences were so valuable in understanding the surroundings but especially the cycle of generations handing down social issues to their kids [then] handing down social issues down to their kids – that’s the cycle that Margaryta and Olga are trying to break, but it’s a force of nature almost. At this point in time in Ukraine history, this was spiraling out of control. There were more and more kids [orphaned] because of the war, which meant that the social issues were spiraling out of control.

You’ve already done more than your share and I know your producer and assistant director have started an NGO to take care of orphans during this time of need, but on a film like this, what’s your responsibility after the cameras stop rolling?

Even before we were finished shooting Eva [in the early part of the film], Azad, Lena [Rozvadovska], the local coordinator and I were looking at each other saying we can’t make this film unless we try to make some kind of difference in these kids’ lives. We were trying to reach out to local NGOs, trying to get them to pay more attention not only to the kids that are left out near the frontline, but also the kids that are brought in from vulnerable families because they’re suffering equal trauma of a psychological nature, and Lena went ahead with Azad and started her NGO [Voices of Children], taking care of vulnerable kids. We also started making plans for when the shooting was done, [pairing] some psychologists with the kids’ trauma specialties – two of the kids that were in the shelter while we were there – so we could at least try and make a difference in their life and hopefully that could inspire some governmental change because at that time there wasn’t that much psychological help available for the kids.

Obviously since the 24th of February [when Ukraine was invaded], Voices of Children has grown exponentially, and it’s getting amazing help from all over the world. What they’re specializing in now is not only taking care of the kids that we know [from the film], but also all of the kids that are internally displaced or in war zones. They are trying to [provide] psychological help or even more practical [needs], just providing the basic comforts of life, or if people want it, help to relocate to more safer areas in the Ukraine, so they are doing an amazing job.

And we were screening the film in Kyiv for the first time in Kiev maybe 11 weeks ago I think, and at the screening, I met Margaryta and Olga and Lena and Azad, but [also] the ombudswoman for children’s rights in Zelensky’s administration. She was at the screening and very moved by the film, so she came out over afterwards and asked if she would be allowed to screen this film for Zelensky so that maybe they could get in touch with the wise social workers that knew about this issue and do some reforms about it. That [would be] incredible news if this actually happens.

“A House Made of Splinters” does not yet have U.S. distribution.

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