The events of director Simon Lereng Wilmont’s Academy Award®-nominated feature documentary, A House Made of Splinters, took place shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, but they are no less compelling for that fact. The four young children the film follows, all temporarily assigned to a makeshift orphanage in the charge of dedicated social workers, face an uncertain future even as is. The knowledge that their homeland will soon be a war zone looms large over the film. The film’s subjects, shot in close-up verité style, each have their hopes and dreams, but their prospects for anything approaching normalcy seem few.
A House Made of Splinters is nothing short of remarkable for the sense it makes of its subjects’ lives and the intimacy with which it conveys them. Eastern Ukraine may not be the only place on earth currently ravaged by the impact of armed conflict, but it is one where the problems of addiction also cast a long, long shadow, often across generations. Lereng Wilmont’s focus is on a safe-haven makeshift orphanage housing children who have been temporarily removed from their parents. While the dedicated social workers strive there to create small moments of joy and respite from childhoods all but lost, the children wonder each day, what might their future bring?
At any time, any day, in fact, news might come—perhaps of a reunion with a parent, perhaps with a grandparent or another relative, perhaps re-assignment to a new and different orphanage, or perhaps relocation to well-intentioned-but-nonetheless-strangers as foster parents. Any day might be the child’s last, or, maybe, the first. Just processing the challenges in making a documentary like A House Made of Strangers is overwhelming. Lereng Wilmont and his crew needed months to research and select their chosen site, earn access to the children, gain their trust, shoot everyday, and select a few specific children on whom to focus their attention—without ever knowing if the next day would be their last.
In a way, the film’s technique underscores the jittery haphazardness of the children’s existence. There’s no exposition or narration to speak of, just the indication of where the events take place and the occasional brisk dictum from one of the social workers: “A lot of you are going to an orphanage today … no crying now. Please pack your things by 9:00 a.m.” It’s a cold fact in a hard life. The children can stay up to nine months, but if no family or foster home is available to them, off to the mysterious and dreaded state orphanage they go. We learn the rules as do the children, who are allowed phone calls to their parents.
The first subject, Eva, might be perhaps eight or nine years old, with bright but sad eyes and an engaging smile. Her first words on the telephone speak volumes: “Is Mom drinking again?” Ukraine falls in the highest WHO category of “years of life lost” due to alcohol use, with an average alcohol consumption of 13.8 liters of pure alcohol per person per year. Each of the children assigned to the orphanage is impacted by their parents’ alcohol consumption. Little Eva, though she dreams of a reunion with her mother, is just smart enough to realize her mother can simply not take care of her. Her best hope is to live with and be raised by her grandparents.
As Eva’s nine-month tenure approaches its conclusion, she finds the new home she desires, and the film, a new subject. In A House Made of Splinters, any of the children may arrive, or leave, at almost any time, and as Eva leaves for a new life, another girl, a little younger, named Sasha arrives. Sasha is less concerned about her future life than she is making friends in the present—a prospect than can be more than a little difficult. Then Kolya, a boy of about 11 or 12 arrives. His mother too has the same problem as Eva’s. When she arrives to visit, she scolds him for his Sharpie tattoos (“Joker,” reads one) and smoking; he smells beer on her breath. Kolya may be the most intriguing of the bunch, a young boy under the influence of some rough older teens, but a fierce protector of his little sister, and a sensitive child masking his fears with a false bravado.
While some important exchanges between the subjects are captured in dialogue, where A House Made of Splinters is most effective is in its striking visuals. In a documentary, one can’t (or normally doesn’t) stage or craft mise-en-scène like a fiction filmmaker; one shoots what exists and aims, with editing and narrative, to imbue images with meaning. Here, Lereng Wilmont helms the camera himself, staying close to his subjects for extended periods, even moments of duress. Meanwhile, what appear on the surface relatively benign moments become fraught with meaning: Sasha and her friend play behind a sheer curtain that visually suggests the two have become ghosts; later, Kolya’s sister draws a crude image of her brother on a chalkboard, then wipes it away into nothingness. Both suggest the temporality of the children’s lives there.
That such a film could be completed under such circumstances is nothing short of a miracle; that it could be so well-crafted and emotionally impactful is a revelation. The children appear relaxed about being filmed, and their moments at play are captured casually and intimately. They tell stories, brush hair, squabble, play, and scrap like children anywhere, but the film never overlooks the fact that their lives rest on a precarious balance between this temporary haven and whatever comes next. Edited carefully down by Michael Aaglund from some 250-plus hours of raw footage to its extant 86 minutes, Lereng Wilmont’s film exhibits the unease of its subjects’ situation without losing track of its narrative drive.
As A House Made of Splinters reaches its conclusion, it’s hard not to realize, as does one of the social workers, that the children they house may well meet the fate their parents had. Bereft of any constancy in their home life, shuttled from one temporary home to another, will these little Evas, Sashas, and Kolyas, 20 years or so from now, be the addicted parents incapable of tending to the children they’ve had—and lost? Will the unending cycle of addiction persist? Will, for that matter, this orphanage, a temporary haven? Or, for that matter, Ukraine itself, so desperately fighting for survival? The documentary follows news of Ukrainian children like these being deported to Russia and made citizens there—without their, or any Ukrainian’s, consent.
Like the also-recently-released and much-heralded Children of the Mist, A House Made of Splinters is a film clearly, deeply, emotionally invested in its subject. You know, viewing the film, there will be no truly happy endings here: the best these children can hope for is a safe haven from abuse, a place to sleep and a decent meal. Maybe, maybe, someone who cares—for longer than a temporary stay at a makeshift orphanage. The three years Lereng Wilmont and his crew invested in their film make clear those children are worth every effort, and A House Made of Splinters is well worth anyone’s while to watch.
Having premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2022, where Lereng Wilmont received the Directing prize for World Documentary, A House Made of Splinters will be available on demand via Apple TV, Prime Video and other major digital platforms beginning February 21, 2023, as well as in select Alamo Drafthouse theaters from March 2023, and in summer 2023 on PBS as part of POV’s upcoming 36th season.