A House Made of Splinters (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): They still have hope, though

Documentary film “A House of Made of Splinters”, which was Oscar-nominated early in this year, simply but closely observes the children and staff members of a special orphanage in Lysychansk of eastern Ukraine. As following how they live day by day, the documentary gives us a number of small but precious personal moments to linger on our mind, and we can only hope that things will get better for these children in the end despite the ongoing war in their country.

The documentary is assembled from what director/writer/cinematographer Simon Lereng Wilmont and his crew members shot at the orphanage during a period of two years. Although the documentary does not give much information on how this orphanage is run and managed by its staff members, we gradually get immersed in its small world nonetheless, and then we get to know a bit about some of the kids temporarily staying there.

As told to us from the beginning, they and many other kids in the orphanage are the children of many poor local families ruined by war, unemployment, and alcoholism. In one of the most poignant moments in the documentary, one little girl comes to befriend some other girl around her age, and you will be touched and saddened as watching one of them casually talking about her first drinking experience under her alcoholic parent.

Before the local court decides whether their parents can still have the rights to live with them, the kids are allowed to stay in the orphanage during next several months, and many of them are certainly not so willing to be with their parents. If their parents lose custody, they will have to wait until someone else comes as a foster parent, and they are going to be sent to some other orphanage if there is not any suitable foster parent even at the end of their staying period at the orphanage.

In case of a little girl named Eva, she is lucky to have someone willing to take care of her instead of her alcoholic mother. When that person eventually comes for her later, she is certainly delighted to say the least, and the staff members of the orphanage are happy to see her departure, though her empty spot will be soon filled by some other girl to come.

In case of a young boy named Kolya, we instantly sense that he is a troublemaker with issues. We see him admonished by one of the staff members for his little misbehavior, and that is just the beginning of his many small and big troubles. He is even caught by the police for running away from the orphanage at one point, but he does not seem to be that repentant about that, as bragging a bit about his little adventure outside the orphanage.

However, the staff members clearly discern that Kolya is as weak and vulnerable as many other kids in the orphanage. It is quite apparent to us that his alcoholic parents are not very good to him, but he still wants to go back to his family home along with his younger sister, and he is certainly glad to see his mother again when she visits the orphanage, though he points out right from the beginning that she still smells of alcohol.

As occasionally looking around the surrounding area of the orphanage, the documentary lets us sense more of how things were desperate for not only the kids and the staff members but the citizens of Lysychansk. Even before Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, eastern Ukraine was ravaged by the conflict between Ukraine and the pro-Russia rebels, and everyone in Lysychansk were constantly aware of the ongoing war because their city was only 20 km (around 12 miles) from the frontline.

In the meantime, the documentary also recognizes some hope and optimism observed from the kids in the orphanage. There is one lively scene where several girls dance together while music is being played in the background, and then we get a little moving moment when Kolya, who becomes adjusted to his new environment a bit more than before, takes care of his younger sister for himself. Still rebellious as usual, he and two older boys smoke together while nobody is watching, and we observe more of their bond and fellowship when they try a bit of tattooing on their arms later.

I wish the documentary showed more of how much the staff members try their best for the kids in the orphanage, but that would probably interfere with its close focus on the kids. Thanks to its intimate approach to them and their daily life in the orphanage, we come to have more empathy and compassion toward not only Eva and Kolya but also many other kids around them, and it is certainly relieving to know that the kids in the orphanage were safely transferred to western Ukraine right after the Russian invasion.

Overall, “A House Made of Splinters” is a modest but solid documentary, and Wilmont, who received the Best Director Award in the World Cinema Documentary section when the documentary had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival early in last year, did a splendid job of presenting its unforgettable human subjects with enough care and attention. It may look less impressive than its fellow Oscar nominees such as “Fire of Love” (2022) or “Navalny” (2022), but it is still worthwhile to watch for not only what is about but also how it is about, and you will certainly come to wish the best for these kids in the documentary

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