In quite different ways, two award-winning Nordic documentaries focus on war zones in other parts of the world outside of the Nordic region.
Eight feature documentaries were recently nominated for the Dragon Award Best Nordic Documentary at this year’s Gothenburg International Film Festival. The award went to the Danish film The Distant Barking of Dogs that last November won the IDFA award for Best First Appearance at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.
Among the candidates in Gothenburg was also the Swedish doc The Deminer. This film participated in the main competition in Amsterdam, where it was awarded the Special Jury Award.
Childhood in a War Zone
The Distant Barking of Dogs is a documentary about ten-year-old Oleg who lives in a small village in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. Even though the Best First Appearance competition in Amsterdam is for debutants (within the feature length format), Danish director Simon Lereng Wilmont has previously made two shorter documentaries portraying kids in the same age, focusing on their involvement in sports. In his new film, the filmmaker wanted to portray how it is to be a child growing up in a warzone.
It didn’t necessarily have to be the war in Ukraine. According to Lereng Wilmont, he chose this region for safety reasons, as the conflict here more or less takes the form of a trench war. However, the filming of his young protagonist has clearly not been completely safe, as Oleg lives only some hundred meters from the front line–in the firing line of the grenades launched between the Ukrainian government forces and the Pro-Russian separatists.
«Despite the fact that the military battles are present in the background throughout the film, The Distant Barking of Dogs focuses on recognizable aspects of being a child.»
We never hear about Oleg’s father. His mother, whose grave Oleg regularly visits, died a few years ago. Understandably, many of the villagers have left the war-torn little town, while Oleg’s grandmother rejects the idea as it will leave them with nothing. Here, at least they have a home.
Despite the fact that the military battles are threateningly present in the background throughout the film (the title even refers to the frequent sound of shots and grenades in the not particularly far distance), The Distant Barking of Dogs focuses on recognizable aspects of being a child and the dynamics between children of different ages. Together with his younger cousin Yarik and their older friend Kostya, Oleg spends his days doing what boys his age usually do, such as swimming in the lake and shooting with a homemade slingshot. But they also collect bullet sleeves and listen closely to news reports about the war. In a particularly unpleasant sequence Kostya brings them a real gun with which to have a shooting session.
Fly on the Wall
Oleg is too young to fully take in the gravity of the war surrounding him, but it is obvious that he regularly battles his own fear–which he won’t admit to. It is also clear that the circumstances have forced the young boy to mature early.
«Director Simon Lereng Wilmont adds a surprising amount of poetry to an initially gloomy film.»
The director has filmed Oleg and his grandmother for a year and a half, and with his consistently observational approach, the film is impressively close to the characters. In this respect, it has probably helped that Lereng Wilmont did the filming and sound recording on his own, instead of bringing a film crew. With atmospheric images and an eye for visual details, he is also able to add a surprising amount of poetry to an initially gloomy film. Not least, this applies to the sequence where Oleg–who at this point admits that he is afraid–is joining Kostya to go swimming while the sun is about to set, and the explosions roll like thunder over the evening sky.
Demining in Iraq
Explosions are also highly present in The Deminer. This Swedish documentary is directed by Hogir Hirori and Shinwar Kamal, and tells the story of Fakhir Berwari, a Kurdish colonel of the Iraqi Army who works with disarming landmines in the war-torn country.
«The Deminer is a fascinating portrait of a man who almost insists on risking his own life.»
The first part of the film is largely based on Berwari’s own video footage of these lethal missions from the years following Saddam Hussein’s fall. “It’s like an action movie, but it’s real,” his son Abdulla says in the film after seeing the footage, which Berwari kept hidden from the family. Indeed, the thrilling documentary The Deminer has certain similarities to Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning fiction film The Hurt Locker (2008). Equipped with a pocketknife and a simple wire-cutter, the protagonist works tirelessly to disarm the plentiful and extremely deadly mines even though one step on a hidden wire can be fatal.
Wounded in an Explosion
After an almost inevitable explosion Berwari loses a leg, which leaves him unfit to continue working for the army. Yet even this does not stop the determined mine-disarmer. A while later, he starts to work for the Kurdish Peshmerga forces to dismantle the devastatingly huge amount of explosives left by the IS in the area inside and outside of Mosul. The bombs are hidden in roadsides, in cars and not least in civilian homes that people now want to return to. These homemade explosive traps are often triggered by mobile phones, meaning that they detonate if these suddenly ring.
A lot of this material is filmed by co-director Kamal, and is of a higher technical quality than the older video footage. Yet some of this material is also filmed by Berwari’s co-workers, who are at risk of losing their lives if one of the bombs should go off while documenting their task.
The Deminer is a fascinating portrait of a man who almost insists on risking his own life, even when the other soldiers ask him to be more careful, because he knows that his work will save the lives of many others. It is a truly heroic effort. However, the disarming of mines also seems to be an obsession with him. The highly dangerous work goes before everything, including his own family–even though the film never leaves any doubt that Fakhir Berwari loves them dearly.
This film participated in the main competition in Amsterdam, where it was awarded the IDFA Special Jury Award (the festival’s “second prize”). The Deminer has certain similarities to the Norwegian film Nowhere to Hide, which won the main prize at the same festival in 2016 and also gives a disturbing insight into the chaotic situation in Iraq.
Furthermore, these films point to a clear trend: Nordic documentaries not only focus on the Nordic region.