In the East of Ukraine, near the frontline, a shelter is the transition point in the lives of children whose parents struggle with the effects of the conflict. Unemployment is one such effect, a deep wound for the communities there, one often medicated with alcohol. As a result, the adults inflict even deeper wounds on their children, who are taken to this shelter where they wait, suspended in midair, for their faith to be decided. The children can be taken back by their parents if they manage to get their lives together, and with the hope, they won’t relapse. But they often do. If this doesn’t happen, the children’s hope is to be taken in by relatives or placed in foster care. Otherwise, the end of the line is the orphanage.
Following the faith of Eva, Sasha, Polina, and Kolya – their unfolding present and their uncertain future – the film captures a definitory part of these children’s lives. It tells not only about the separation itself, which is trauma but about the emotional toll of not knowing and about what these children learn about life and what their universe is like. It also tells about how they cope, how amid a life falling apart, they find comfort and joy in the normality that is still available to them, in the comforts of the company of others, and through the affection and love the social workers show them. They make friends. They dance together. They tell each other personal stories that are similar. Their normality is made of absent adults who cannot get their lives together. It makes them grow up and understand something of the texture of life that children should be spared of.
Beyond that, their reality is just a piece of history repeating, like a snowball. Trauma spreads within families and gets passed on. The social workers put a lot of effort and heart into keeping these small humans afloat and safe. But they worked there long enough to know that the children coming to the shelter often turn into adults whose children will also end up there.
Their normality is made of absent adults who cannot get their lives together.
The film has depth, and it’s a journey of emotional insight. The empathy that rises towards these children is about witnessing this difficult part of their life and understanding the undulations of their emotions, their facial expressions, and bearing witness to small humans that face big life challenges alone. Following each of them, Wilmont portrays them in a light that is certainly driven by their hurt but is not only it. That gives them a dignity they deserve. They understand the implications of their circumstances, they face the questions and the answers they are given, showing a kind of maturity no child should have at that age. And painful as it is to watch, that tells something incredibly profound about the resilience of the human spirit.
The film’s aesthetic is pure poetry. Wilmont finds emotion not only in these stories he captures but in that whole microcosmos and its surroundings, with the bittersweetness of the eastern post-communist landscapes and aesthetics. He shows their sad beauty, without idealization or without romanticizing it. And because of that, he finds the heart of that space; it shows it for what it is.
Wilmont has an incredible ability to give tangible visual depth to delicate emotions through tender scenes. It is all in the details. It is a show don’t tell approach, a dive into each of these children’s inner journeys, telling how these journeys change them. We’ve seen the same in The Distant Barking of Dogs, a wonderful, painful, and poetic film he released in 2017, following a 10-year-old Ukrainian boy whose innocence is gradually eroded over the course of a year, under the pressures of war. He does it now, mixing poetry with a sense of how pain and tenderness, longing and despair, playfulness, and the tough realities of life can coexist in a present that is not one thing yet defines and makes these children’s lives.
Such a life
Imagining children abandoned by their families gives one the automated image of drama—a drama that happens somewhere else, remote. It’s hard to imagine what that is like if one has never gone through it. A House Made of Splinters comes close, very close, so to see the very fabric of such a life. It does so with depth and a compassionate eye behind the camera. And because of that, it turns these children from what could be just statistics into the individual humans they are, to be seen – if not by their parents – at least by the rest of the world, for the beauty and tenderness they are made of.
With that war unfolding in Ukraine, one cannot help wondering where those vulnerable children are? What happened to them these days? One cannot help pondering that war destroys lives, dismantles the fabric of society, and leaves deep wounds that play like dominos, from one individual to another, within families, from adults to children. It had done so already in these children’s lives. How much worse and how many others will go through the same path of dysfunctionality, during this war and in its aftermath? Because unavoidably, these children’s life path is determined by a kind of dysfunctionality that will bring even more in and take many other facets and turns, as the Russian invasion ravages the country.