By David D’Arcy
With the eyes of the world on Ukraine right now, two films at Sundance came from that country, or what was that country. Through different styles, documentary and drama, each looks at people far removed from those whose decisions shape their lives.
An intimate Danish documentary filmed in Ukraine, A house made of shards considers children in a temporary shelter whose parents have placed them there. This is a gentle stopover in a stage in eastern Ukraine, near the front lines, between family anguish and a dreaded possible stay in a third place that everyone in the film call the orphanage.
The film’s resounding title captures the dilemma. The children arrive at the shelter, a nondescript building outside, from broken families who cannot take care of them. Their ages range from what looks like four or five years old to about twelve years old. Each child’s stay is limited to nine months, more or less, and this period is strictly enforced from what we learn. You don’t see the children arguing with each other 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 children from the threat of war outside the home and rampant alcohol abuse within their impoverished families is likely to look good.
Simon Lereng Wilmont filmed and directed this drama, which was shot almost entirely indoors. As the cliché says, the camera seems to disappear, and you get not so much one story but several, of children from families who don’t want or can’t raise them, children who know a little about the world for having seen so much, but are still young children.
Do not expect the consequences of the war and Russian seizures of Ukrainian territory. Wilmont previously told this story in 2017 in The distant barking of dogs, an atmospheric documentary about two boys growing up in eastern Ukraine within earshot of the fighting. This movie was shown on PBS, which might show A house made of shards. His new film takes the same observational approach. The shelter where these children ended up together, with its soft interiors in honey tones, is anything but a forbidding place. If you’ve been to the former Soviet republics, the heat in stressful situations isn’t what you first think of.
One thing to keep in mind – Wilmont filmed during the COVID pandemic, when the shelter was cut 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 children and staff. The marvelous glowing sweetness of A house made of shards is all the more remarkable for this.
The same goes for the film’s intimate relationship with the children Wilmont films. Eva, a dark-haired girl who looks about six or seven years old, is playful with other children but withdrawn with adults. She talks about going back to her mother, who she knows drinks way too much. His mother never calls back. Then Eva’s grandmother seems willing to take her. It means a chance for family life, but the palette of the world outside the shelter – grey, cold and rainy – is anything but promising as Eva considers taking the next step. Here, and elsewhere, we get rare glimpses of the children’s emotional lives as we hear their words – the film probes the tension between what they’ve learned from the experience and what they hope for in the future. It echoes Robert Coles’ approach to the children he encountered in his classic Crisis Children. No surprises. Like Coles, Wilmont is a listener.
Sasha, another young girl, has no home to welcome her. When a lonely middle-aged woman from the local town approaches and offers to put her up, Sasha barely speaks, but smiles with wary hesitation saying she’s willing to try.
Kolya, a light-hearted, almost teenage youngster – who smiles as his head is shaved on both sides – likes to be seen as a cool troublemaker. But he knows the safe haven might be the best thing he’s got. He explains to friends there, with a laugh of feigned detachment, that his house collapsed when his drunken father repeatedly stabbed his mother, and was later pardoned from a long prison sentence and sent home. him. Given that the teenager has a brother and a little sister clinging to him, it’s obvious that family life hasn’t worked out. Kolya knows his time at the shelter is nearly over and he and his siblings are at risk of being separated again.
An extract of A house made of shards
Despite the image in its title suggesting battle-damaged structures in eastern Ukraine, A house made of shards has less to do with the war than with the lives of these children and their traumatic upbringing, often by fathers and mothers who drink too much. Wilmont’s camera lens 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.
Children know this better than anyone. Through Wilmont’s lens, we see not so much tears as a sense of resignation. These adolescents had to be independent in a family whose parents were no longer providers. There is weeping, but a sense of calm permeates.
This quiet discovery is reflected in Wilmont’s tranquil style. Elegant and human, his rare contact with children and light could remind you To be and to Have (“Being and Having”), Nicolas Philibert’s touching 2002 portrait of a one-room school in the French countryside and its teacher. Directing and operating the camera, Wilmont is a one-man guerrilla cinema operation, gazing at a heartwarming world inside the shelter that, to these children, seems like everything the outside world isn’t. .
A scripted drama at Sundance set in eastern Ukraine couldn’t be more different. The crudely poetic Klondikeby Ukrainian writer and director Maryna Er Gorbach, who won the Best Director Award at the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, offers an apocalypse already set in motion.
It’s 2014, or sometime after, and gunmen who support Russia have taken over the stretch of land where Irka’s farm is, minus one side, which a mortar shell took away. Irka (Oksana Cherkashyna) still lives in what remains of the ruined house, with her gruff husband Tolik (Sergey Shadrin). He leans in support of the separatists, but he sways back and forth due to his drinking. Irka’s brother, Yuryk (Oleg Scherbina), hates Russians, but he intends to stay alive. They are stuck with each other, their lives in full view of the world (and us). There’s not even a blind to pull down now that the side of the house is gone. Think of Joseph Heller in Ukraine.
Irka is visibly pregnant and takes care of the family cow, their only asset. She won’t leave, even though Tolik warns her that unstable pro-Russian gangs are a threat, which is a bit like telling her that their house has a resale problem.
Considering the pro-Russian invasion, the wasteland around it isn’t worth much. It doesn’t help when a plane bound for Malaysia from the Netherlands is shot down nearby: its shiny frame and wings, its passengers and contents, are strewn across the landscape. This movie has its own set of shards – in this case, more stuff for gunmen to loot.
Klondike looks and feels all too real, with the tactile earth of a battlefield. But it is fiction. Anything but literal reporting from the front, Er Gorbach’s screenplay is rooted in the grotesque, often stumbling into absurd comedy.
Moving with icy slowness, Klondike can feel like a play, an application of great staging on a wide and deep stage. Most of the time the camera is placed in a fixed location and the action (if you can call it that) moves in and out of frame. Long close-ups give Irka and the two men in her life a heightened presence. In the case of Irka, it stands out against an empty background except for passing Russian-made military vehicles. She is surprisingly and stridently monumental – her courage is all the more impressive for being a pure unarmed challenge. It may not be a coincidence that Cherkashyna, a theater actress, hadn’t worked in film before Klondike. His game is a revelation.
Er Gorbach and Cherkashyna talk about doing Klondike in the clip above.
Irka’s stand of resistance, or simply its recalcitrance, may seem brutal, but some of the darker scenes veer into the absurd, dark humor found throughout the post-Soviet world. The stubborn Irka always cleans her house, wall or no wall. In this post-apocalyptic landscape, Tolik and some tattooed pro-Russian thugs, their slow truck towing a deadly missile launcher, could be figures in a sequel to road warrior. And these gangsters are asking to be fed.
Wacky? The Wall Street Journal reports that in occupied Donbass, now under Russian control, abandoned MacDonald restaurants have now reopened. They were officially renamed MacDon. In a war, you’d think a burger was just a burger.
The word klondike suggests a wilderness that fortune hunters invade to get rich quick. This is hardly the promise posed by these dusty, lifeless fields save for a passing tank or two. It is a desert, but it is the desert of Irka. His 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 numerous publications, including the art diary. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a painting looted by the Nazis found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.