Oscar-Nominated Director Simon Lereng Wilmont On Working With Ukrainian Kids In ‘A House Made Of Splinters’: It’s All About Understanding “Their Hopes, Dreams, Fears”

Oscar-Nominated Director Simon Lereng Wilmont On Working With Ukrainian Kids In ‘A House Made Of Splinters’: It’s All About Understanding “Their Hopes, Dreams, Fears”

March 7, 2023

In the Oscar-nominated documentary A House Made of Splinters, Eva, a girl living in an orphanage in Eastern Ukraine, plays “catch” with a friend, tossing soap bubbles back and forth. As light seeps through a curtained window, Eva cradles the filmy orbs, her hands lathered in soap to keep the bubbles from bursting.

In truth, her life and the lives of other children in the shelter are as delicate as those iridescent spheres, and as vulnerable to rupture. They are the unseen victims of the war waged by Russia on Ukraine, a conflict that simmered for years before the full-scale Russian invasion last February. Eva and kids like her were sent to live at the facility after their parents – caving to stress caused by the Russian-backed separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine – failed to meet their kids’ basic needs.

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The shelter seen in A House Made of Splinters may not look like much – it could use a paint job and sits on the grounds of a grim-looking hospital – but the women who run it display deep empathy as they attend to the emotional wellbeing of the children. Wilmont says he felt that from the moment he first visited the shelter.

“I distinctly remember [caregiver] Marharyta standing, hugging fiercely two kids, while she was shouting at some parent over the phone,” the director recalled at a Q&A on Sunday at the Laemmle Royal cinema in Los Angeles. “The whole place seemed to radiate comfort and caring.”

In the documentary, Eva is seen trying to reach her mother on the phone. There’s no answer. She calls her grandmother next, and in the conversation refers to her mother’s apparent alcoholism. “I want her to stop drinking,” she tells her grandma, “so we can start all over again.”

In voiceover, one of the caretakers notes of the city nearby, “Every 10th door hides a broken family,” acknowledging that the Russian-supported separatist movement in Donbas ruined the area’s economy, spiked unemployment and led to dramatically increased rates of alcohol and drug abuse. “Life has always been hard here,” the caregiver says. “But the war made it worse.”

Wilmont, a Danish filmmaker based in Copenhagen, also shot his 2017 documentary The Distant Barking of Dogs in Eastern Ukraine, with the rumblings of war likewise as the backdrop. For A House Made of Splinters, “We started filming in April 2019, all the way through to October 2020,” he explained. “I would go there every second month, very much on the dot, and stay there for seven to 14 days.”

In addition to Eva, the film focuses on Sasha, a girl who somehow seems to take living in the shelter in stride, and Kolya, a boy who cuts himself and draws tattoos on his arms with magic markers. That kind of self-harm seems to indicate inner turmoil, but he adopts a devil-may-care attitude with the women who run the shelter. When Kolya’s mother visits (he notices the smell of alcohol on her breath) she asks him about the cuts on his arm, then embraces him. His ostensibly tough exterior dissolves as tears roll down his cheeks.

In his earlier film Wilmont also worked with kids; in A House Made of Splinters he again demonstrates an unusual capacity to reveal the emotional lives of children. At the Q&A he spoke about his approach.

“I do my own cinematography and I do my own sound. So, it’s actually just me and my assistant, [a] Ukrainian assistant director,” he said. “We spend a huge amount of time just getting to know the kids, having fun with them, trying to understand their everyday life and trying to understand their hopes and their dreams and their fears to really see them.”

He added, “I’m also very focused on letting them know that if there’s something that makes them uncomfortable that I’m filming, that they should just raise up their hand or simply walk away or say stop. And in those incidents where they actually do this, I honor my word and I put down the camera, even though it might be a scene that’s like ‘gold.’ Over time, I think this also makes a certain mutual trust arise between us, that they know who I am and what I’m doing there, but they also know me and I know them. I have two kids roughly the same age as them. And I love hanging out with all of them and seeing the world through their eyes. I think it’s super-fascinating.”

Unlike the other Oscar-nominated feature documentaries this year, A House Made of Splinters went through most of awards season without any U.S. distribution partner. That changed recently, however. As Deadline reported last month, Giant Pictures acquired U.S. theatrical and VOD rights to the documentary; it is currently playing at select Alamo Drafthouse locations around the country, and is available on digital platforms, including Apple TV and Prime Video. Separately, the PBS series POV acquired broadcast rights to the film and plans to premiere it on public TV stations over the summer as part of POV’s 36th season.

The shelter, located in Lysychansk, stands empty now, in a decimated area currently controlled by Russian forces. Wilmont says a shell pierced the roof of the building but didn’t explode; the warhead occupies an ominous position in the middle of the abandoned living space. The kids got out safely on the day Russia launched its full-scale invasion, the director reports.

“Somebody acted super quickly in the city administration [of Lysychansk] and already on the morning of the 24th of February [2022], they put all the kids from the orphanages in the surrounding area on a train… and they drove them west,” Wilmont said. “It was a journey that took almost three days, because they had to stop the train all the time because of mortars, the tanks and the development in the war in those first few days. But they made it safely to, first, the western parts of Ukraine. And when those began to get hit by rocket attacks, they actually took some of the kids into Europe to temporary orphanages where they’ve been spending most of last year.”

Despite the trauma endured by the kids of A House Made of Splinters, Wilmont sees the documentary as hopeful, in some respects, in that it shows both the resiliency of children and the difference that loving caregivers around them can make.

“It was very important for me to see if I could capture the moments where the children really shone as those beautiful and amazing creatures that they are,” he said, “and the hope that they carry.”

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