In an Oscar-nominated documentary, Ukrainian children scarred by war navigate life
(KYIV, Ukraine) — An Oscar-nominated documentary, “The House Made of Splinters,” tells a deep and emotive story of Ukrainian children affected by the Russian invasion.
“Life has always been difficult here,” the narrator of the film says, “war made it worse.”
The film takes us to 2019 in an orphanage-type institution in Lysychansk, a town in the eastern Luhansk oblast of Ukraine. The town is about 20 kms from the frontline between Ukrainian territory and the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic that was formed in 2014 when Russian forces occupied part of eastern Ukraine.
Many families in the region have been broken apart since then. Some were separated because parents lost their jobs and others because they found an outlet in alcohol or drugs or became homeless. Kids from such families are taken to shelters, centers for social and psychological rehabilitation, until their destiny could be decided by the authorities. After 9 months, most are either returned to their parents or brought to a foster family.
So, life in this house is something in between the past and the future, as well as the life in this whole region Ukraine and Russia are now battling for.
They live with uncertainty. But also in a bubble, a safe place, where kids find love, care and friends. But it’s a temporary bubble. A house made of splinters.
“I think childhood can be the most traumatic period that can affect our whole life,” Simon Lereng Wilmont, the Danish director behind “The House Made of Splinters,” told ABC News. “Mine was like that so I became interested in filming children. Our previous films were about kids in a safe environment so later I just wondered how it’s like to grow up in a dangerous one.”
The film was created in co-production with Denmark, Sweden and Finland with the support of the Ukrainian State Film Agency.
In the very first days of filming, the crew found themselves in danger — on the way to the orphanage their car came under shelling. Fortunately no one was hurt and it didn’t make the director change his mind and leave Ukraine. On the contrary.
“Once I entered the orphanage I immediately felt the warm and protected atmosphere inside,” Wilmont said. “How the kids were playing and the teachers took care of them … It’s just amazing in such dark circumstances.”
In that uncertain-but-safe bubble, the children in the film live through their tragedies, grow and change and sometimes demonstrate outstanding human qualities — this is what Wilmont’s team witnessed during roughly 100 days of filming over the course of a year and a half.
We see a 13-year-old boy who tenderly took care of his younger siblings, but in the blink of an eye could turn into a brutal hooligan before the others.
“Any director, any actor can only dream about such a strong black-and-white character! Kind of a small Joker,” said Azad Safarov, a producer on the film.
We see the beautiful friendship of two little girls and an invisible chain that tied two boys who became friends in the shelter.
“It was one of the most emotional scenes” Safarov said. “One of the boys had to leave. But he didn’t say anything to his friend, they were just sitting in front of each other silently for like half an hour … And you could feel how much was actually happening between them.”
Watching the film, it’s at times hard to believe that it’s not fictional — the stories unfold naturally, no one is looking into the camera as it silently follows the often-heroic children. It took the team quite some time to reach that goal, they said.
“We spent half a year earning these kids’ trust. Because they looked into the camera and then we had to resort to some tricks to make them not do that,” Safarov said. “And also because the kids thought we wanted to adopt them and tried to show the best of them. And no kid is better at acting like those from dysfunctional families. Because acting for them is a way of surviving.”
“But when they get used to the camera and then let it into the sensitive parts of their life you see what a huge world is inside this child,” he added.
In one scene, a girl who’s anxiously waiting for her mom to pick up hears “The number you have dialed cannot be reached.” Here grandmother tells her that her mom is drinking again. She promised her daughter to come and see her but didn’t keep her promise. Again.
“In some situations we just had to stop the filming and pause because we couldn’t help crying,” Wilmont said. “I couldn’t believe the parents could be so indifferent to their kids. And those little ones, despite everything, still love their parents! Every day they were losing hope and regaining it again.”
He added, “These kids’ families’ are broken. But each of them has some piece of it in their heart, and together with the rest they build this shelter. A house made of splinters.”
The film also shows that there’s a dark side of this safe bubble, with the psychological problems that the kids and their teachers face in the shelter.
“The psychologists that came there usually aren’t very helpful, their salaries are so poor,” Safarov said. “So it turns out that the teachers become mental doctors for kids but have no one to talk to themselves and you can see that burden on their shoulders. When we finally convinced them to talk to the shrinks we hired for them they were astonished at how much pain and tears they have been holding inside.
The film appeared on screens in January 2022 and immediately caught the eye of critics and received Sundance Film Festival’s award for best directing in the World Cinema Documentary category. Russia began a full-scale Invasion of Ukraine began the following month. The orphanage was relocated to a safer place.
“All the children’s hardships that we showed in our film now multiplied so much because of this war,” Wilmont said. “That’s why I’m so happy we were nominated for the Oscar now since we can bring up again the suffering that the Russian invasion caused to Ukrainian children in particular.”
The full-fledged war gave a start to a bigger mission for Safarov, its producer and co-director. Working on the film he and his friend Olena Rozvadovska launched a foundation Voices of Children that provides humanitarian and psychological aid to the Ukrainian kids affected by the war.
“I’ve been working near the frontline since 2014 and ‘The House Made of Splinters’ is my third film. But it’s the most difficult one from an emotional point of view,” he said. “So the launch of the foundation was, on one hand, a way of relief for me since now I can help the kids. On the other hand, we saw how much children can be neglected, so now we want them to be heard and understood. The name of our fund, Voices of Children, says it.”
The foundation gathers and publishes quotes by the kids affected by Russian invasion. For example: “My dad shielded the windows so that the missile couldn’t fly in,” little Eva said.
Dozens of such quotes were compiled into a book the fund has released this year. Safarov and Rozvadovska toured in Europe with the edition to raise more funds for their charity. Their big dream now is to build a big rehabilitation center for children in the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine.
They are as funny as they are bittersweet or even wise.
Said one child: “Mom, is it true that even Google doesn’t know when the war ends?”
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