Film Reviews: Two Views from Ukraine at Sundance – Kids and Chaos

By David D’Arcy

A scene from A House Made of Splinters. Photo: Sundance Institute

With the eyes of the world on Ukraine right now, two films at Sundance came from that country, or what used to be that country. Through different styles, one a documentary and one a drama, each looks at people who find themselves far away from those whose decisions are shaping their lives.

An intimate Danish documentary shot in Ukraine, A House Made of Splinters considers children in a temporary shelter whose parents have placed them there. This is a gentle stop at a way station in eastern Ukraine, near the front lines, between family angst and a dreaded eventual stay in a third place that everyone in the film calls the orphanage.

The film’s resonant title captures the dilemma. Children arrive at the shelter, a nondescript building on the outside, from splintered families who can’t care for them. They range in age from what looks like four or five to around 12. Each child’s stay is limited to nine months, more or less, and that time period, we learn, is enforced strictly. We don’t see the children fighting among themselves much, and the women who run the place seem attentive and kind and attached to the children in their care. One note — any place that shelters vulnerable indigent kids from the threat of war outside the household and from endemic alcohol abuse inside their impoverished families is likely to look good.

Simon Lereng Wilmont filmed and directed this drama, almost all of it shot indoors. As the cliché goes, the camera seems to disappear, and what we get is not so much one story but several, of kids from families who won’t or can’t raise them, kids who know a bit about the world from having seen so much, but are still young children.

Don’t expect the consequences of the war and Russian seizures of Ukrainian territory. Wilmont already told that story in 2017 in The Distant Barking of Dogs, an atmospheric doc about two boys growing up in eastern Ukraine within earshot of fighting. That film played on PBS, which might show A House Made of Splinters. His new film takes the same observational approach. The shelter where these children have ended up together, with its soft, honey-toned interiors, is anything but a forbidding place. If you’ve been to the former Soviet republics, warmth in stressful situations is not what you think of first.

One thing to keep in mind — Wilmont filmed during the Covid pandemic, when the shelter was shut off from much of the rest of the outside world to minimize contagion. Working with available light, he operated the camera wearing the equivalent of a HAZ-MAT suit, which we never see, as he moved among the kids and personnel. The wondrous glowing softness of A House Made of Splinters is all the more remarkable for that.

So is the film’s intimate relationship to the children that Wilmont films. Eva, a dark-haired girl who looks about six or seven, is playful with other children but withdrawn with adults. She speaks of returning to her mother, whom she knows drinks far too much. Her mother never calls back. Then Eva’s grandmother seems willing to take her. This means a chance for family life, but the palette of the world outside the shelter — gray, chilly, and rainy — is anything but promising as Eva mulls taking that next step. Here, and elsewhere, we are given rare glimpses into the children’s emotional lives as we hear their words — the film probes the tension between what they have learned from experience and what they hope for in the future. This echoes Robert Coles’s approach to the kids he met in his classic Children of Crisis books. No surprise. Like Coles, Wilmont is a listener.

Sasha, another young girl, has no home welcoming her. When a lonely middle-aged woman from the local town steps up and offers to take her in, Sasha barely speaks, but smiles with wary hesitation as she says she’s willing to try.

Kolya, a slight young near-teen — who grins as his head is shaved on both sides — likes to be seen as a cool troublemaker. But he knows that the shelter could be the best thing he’s got. He explains to friends there, with a laugh of feigned detachment, that his home fell apart when his drunken father stabbed his mother multiple times, and was later pardoned from a long prison term and sent home. Given that the adolescent has a brother and little sister clinging to him, it is obvious that home life did not work out. Kolya knows that his time at the shelter is almost over, and that he and his siblings face being splintered again.

A clip from A House Made of Splinters

Despite the image in its title which suggests structures damaged by fighting in eastern Ukraine, A House Made of Splinters has less to do with war than with these children’s lives and their traumatic upbringing, often by fathers and mothers who drink far too much. The focus of Wilmont’s camera is close and intimate, but it touches on a larger space, that of a family life conquered and dispersed, not by invading Russian troops, but by alcohol.

The kids know this better than anyone. Through Wilmont’s lens, we don’t see tears so much as a sense of resignation. These adolescents had to be self-reliant in a family whose parents were no longer providers. There’s some crying, but a sense of calm pervades.

That calm finds itself reflected in Wilmont’s quiet style. Elegant and humane, his rare touch with kids and the light might remind you of Etre et Avoir (“To Be and To Have”), Nicolas Philibert’s touching 2002 portrait of a one-room schoolhouse in rural France and its teacher. Directing and operating the camera, Wilmont is a one-man guerrilla cinema operation, watching a comforting world inside the shelter that, for these kids, seems to be everything the outside world is not.

A scene from Klondike. Photo: Sundance Institute

A scripted drama at Sundance that is set in eastern Ukraine could not be more different. The coarsely poetic Klondike, from the Ukrainian writer and director Maryna Er Gorbach, who won the Directing Award in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, offfers an apocalypse that has already come and taken up residence.

It’s 2014, or sometime after that, and armed men who support Russia have seized the expanse of land where Irka’s farmhouse is, minus one side of it, which a mortar shell removed. Irka (Oksana Cherkashyna) still lives in what’s left of the crumbling house, with her gruff husband Tolik (Sergey Shadrin). He leans toward supporting the separatists, but he sways back and forth because of his drinking. Irka’s brother Yuryk (Oleg Scherbina) hates the Russians, but he’s intent on staying alive. They’re stuck with each other, their lives in plain view for the world (and us) to see. There is not even a window shade to lower, now that the side of the house is gone. Think Joseph Heller in Ukraine.

Irka is noticeably pregnant and cares for the family’s cow, their only asset. She won’t leave, even though Tolik warns her that the volatile pro-Russian gangs are a threat, which is sort of like telling her that their house has a resale problem.

Given the pro-Russian invasion, the desolate surrounding land can’t be worth all that much. It doesn’t help when a plane bound from Holland for Malaysia is shot down nearby: its shiny frame and wings, passengers and contents, are strewn around the landscape. This film has its own set of splinters — in this case, more stuff for the armed men to plunder.

Klondike looks and feels all too real, with the tactile earthiness of a battlefield. But it is fiction. Anything but literal reporting from the front, Er Gorbach’s script is rooted in grotesquery, often stumbling into absurd comedy.

Moving with a glacial slowness, Klondike can feel like a work of theater, an application of grand European mise en scène on a wide, deep stage. Much of the time the camera is set in a fixed place, and the action (if you can call it that) moves in and out of the frame. Long close-ups give Irka and the two men in her life an enhanced presence. In Irka’s case, she’s silhouetted against an empty backdrop, except for the Russian-made military vehicles that shuttle through. She’s strikingly and stridently monumental — her courage is all the more impressive because it’s pure unarmed defiance. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that Cherkashyna, a stage actress, had not worked in film before Klondike. Her acting is a revelation.

Er Gorbach and Cherkashyna speak about making Klondike in the above clip.

Irka’s stance of resistance, or just recalcitrance, can come off as heavy-handed, but some of the grimmest scenes veer toward absurdism, a dark humor that’s found all over the post-Soviet world. The stubborn Irka still cleans her house, wall or no wall. In this post-apocalyptic landscape, Tolik and some tattooed pro-Russian thugs, their slow-moving truck towing a deadly missile launcher, could be figures from a sequel to Road Warrior. And these gangsters demand to be fed.

Far-fetched? The Wall Street Journal reports that in the occupied lands of the Donbas, now under Russian control, abandoned MacDonald’s restaurants have now reopened. They have been officially renamed MacDon. In a war, you would have thought that a hamburger is just a hamburger.

The word “Klondike” suggests a wilderness that fortune hunters invade to get rich quick. That is hardly the promise posed by these dusty fields, lifeless except for a passing tank or two. It’s a wasteland, but it’s Irka’s wasteland. Her sense of ownership, of staying put — minus a wall — is the only glimpse of wish-fulfillment in this hard-headed film.

David D’Arcy lives in New York. For years, he was a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He writes about art for many publications, including the Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

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