Two girls around 10 face off in a room, sitting cross-legged on a wilted rug. One is raven haired and scrappy, the other strawberry blond with a ballerina neck. It’s unclear if they will fight or kiss; either feels reasonable. “I want to tell you that you’re beautiful and smart,” says the bolder one. “That’s all.”
An Oscar-nominated doc about Ukrainian orphans might seem the last method by which to boost one’s dopamine, but Simon Lereng Wilmont’s latest feature might just prove otherwise. Set in Lysychansk, an eastern town “20 kilometers from the frontline,” as the prologue emphasizes, A House Made of Splinters depicts the bracing reality of children whose parents have succumbed to alcoholism, made to live in a “temporary home” for the nine months before parental rights are forfeited. We come to know Eva, whose mother won’t answer the phone for weeks; Sasha, whose first swig of beer is at the age of eight; and Kolya, who Sharpies “Joker” on his forearm and refuses to wash it off. Amid their harrowing family circumstances, the orphanage becomes a space of community and play for toddlers to teens — a refuge, however tenuous, from a larger epidemic of addiction sweeping the region.
“Life has always been hard here,” explains Marharyta Burlutska, one of the social workers who runs the home, “but the [Russo-Ukrainian] war made things even worse.” Here, she refers not to the current War Against Ukraine, which broke out shortly after the film’s completion (and due to which all children and staff of the home escaped to other parts of the country), but the ongoing conflict that, since 2014, has devastated the country and sundered many families. Along the course of the vérité narrative — filmed onsite over a year-and-a-half period in which the director made 10 one-week trips to Lysychansk — we bear witness not only to these children’s ongoing trauma, but to their enduring ability to seek out and sustain their own support networks. Less fly-on-the-wall than gnat-on-the-shoulder, Wilmont’s camera follows the children with breathtaking intimacy, from the stitches on Sasha’s forehead to the cigarette Kolya shares in secret with an older friend.
The women who run the shelter play a number of roles, the most obvious that of attentive matriarch. In the opening scene, a flinty woman in a tight fuchsia tracksuit awakens the children at dawn, caressing their faces with feathers or dribbling water onto their brows. “I came to wake you up,” she sings to a drowsy girl in a top bunk. “You beautiful little thing.”
Who doesn’t want to awaken this way? The glory of The House Made of Splinters is its foregrounding of the ways in which family — and love — need not rely on biological drive or duty, need not vanish in the face of political and personal upheaval. When the tweens of the home practice their dance moves to a Ukrainian pop tune, we don’t need to dwell on their audience of abandoned tots unless we focus on their wide and delighted gazes. As the girls groove, a speaker blares, “I dance there, proudly, alone.”
A House Made of Splinters is available to stream online.