Film Review: The Distant Barking of Dogs (2017), Dir. Simon Lereng Wilmont
This three year immersion into the daily life of a young boy, 10 year old, Oleg, and his grandmother, Alexandra, in war-torn Eastern Ukraine is one of the purest examples of documentary filmmaking I have seen. The Danish filmmaker, who worked with an interpreter, filmed every other month for a week at a time and, in the most unobtrusive way imaginable, followed Oleg as he goes to school, plays with his friends, and does chores and helps around the house which he shares with his fiercely brave and protective grandmother. They live in the village of Hnutove, only a few kilometers away from the war zone. The sights and sounds of the shelling are like a fireworks display in the evening, only to reveal the damage and devastation during the daytime. It is appalling and shocking.
Over the period being recorded, the village gradually becomes more and more deserted as those who have a safe place to go flee to safety. Oleg and his cousin Yarik, are inseparable best friends and while away the days as boys will do and their relationship acts as a shield from the chaos in the near distance. They are resourceful with the little that is available to them as they navigate increasing shortages of supplies, services and neighbors. Alexandra, old and not in great health, is remarkably resilient and somehow always manages to bring home food to put on the table which she prepares with great love. When Yarik’s mother decides she can no longer stand the anxiety and fear of their life, she decides to leave with Yarik and move in with some relatives in a safer and saner place. She offers to take Oleg, (but only half-heartedly) who refuses saying that he will not and cannot leave his grandmother. She has raised him since his mother died. Alexandra refuses to go, believing that leaving her ancestral home with nothing would be a far worse fate than staying this close to the danger zone. She rationalizes her decision thus: “Every dog is a lion in his own home”. The bond between these two is ironclad.
Her intense nurturing seems to put an invisible protective shield around them both. Although, at times she becomes so fearful about her own health and the real danger that she goes to extremes to protect Oleg from this reality, such as obsessive cleaning at strange hours, an activity to occupy her hands, which are shaking uncontrollably. She also teaches him life lessons which are an antidote to the senseless violence within their purview, when she finds out that an older boy has been teaching Oleg and Yarik about landmines and weapons and how to shoot guns, by practicing on frogs. She gently reprimands him about the cruelty of killing creatures which have done no harm. A great irony against this backdrop of endless aggression.
I was fortunate to attend a Q & A with the director, who had brought with him Oleg and Alexandra, on their first trip outside of Ukraine. Oleg, a surprisingly normal seeming 13 year old, was garrulous and enthralled with the experiences of the moment, seeing all of the newness of NYC. The Alexandra, much less comfortable being on a stage in front of an audience, revealed her immense inner strength by what she did not say. If this sounds like reality of the film. The amazing thing that they both said was that, while all of this trip was wonderful, they missed their home and were looking forward to returning.
Oleg, who was thrilled to be the subject of all of this attention, is mesmerizing to watch in the film. His face is subtly eloquent at registering his inner conflicts. In an interview with the director before being chosen, he was asked to describe the fear he experienced. He replied: “If you can imagine a cold hand reaching in and grabbing your heart when the first explosions sound. After the cannons have fired, the hand starts squeezing your heart. Then it gets all cold, too.” He was an extraordinary subject and the director gave plenty of credit to his luck on finding him. I imagine and hope that he will be able to share his story beyond this film. This is where senseless human suffering is being caused by man’s inhumanity to man. It ranks high on the list of genre films on childhood at the intersection between innocence and knowledge, like Capernaum. This one is a beauty.
You can watch a trailer for the film here