The documentary A House Made of Splinters is set in the town of Lysychansk, in Donbas, in the Eastern part of Ukraine, and is about a harrowing turn of events. However, it's not about the Russian invasion that began a year ago this week. It was completed and debuted prior to that, at Sundance in early-2022. That isn't to say that life was easy in Eastern Ukraine at the time this film was made. There had been war before, and another war was always likely again.
The film's Danish director, documentarian Simon Lereng Vilmont, previously made The Distant Barking of Dogs, also set in Ukraine and set during the 2014 War in Donbas. Its producer, Monica Hellström, was also behind 2021's excellent Flee, a film that took a very different look at the refugee experience.
A House Made of Splinters is an immersive documentary that’s hard to watch, but very moving. It's set in what's essentially a group home in Ukraine, which houses children removed from their family homes for various reasons, often parental alcoholism, abuse, or both. Social workers are there to try to make the best of things, but it's an uphill battle. There are various heartbreaking moments, including one girl calling her grandmother to hear whether or not her mother has started drinking again. Adding to that is that the kids are allowed to stay in this facility for a limited time, before facing the prospect of what amounts to a state orphanage. Or, as we know would happen not long after this, something worse.
This would be a powerful film even there hadn't been the Russia-Ukraine War. But that adds another layer. The unspoken worry, hanging over everything, is about what happened to these kids once their location became a war zone. We're tempted to ask if they're okay, but then they weren't okay before the war started.
The director said, shortly after the start of the war, that the facility from the film had been evacuated to a different part of Ukraine, as had people who worked on the film. It was a dramatic rescue, with two of the film's protagonists reportedly taking a train to the Western part of Ukraine on the very day of Russia's invasion. After a festival run last year, which led to its Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary, A House Made of Splinters is getting a theatrical release and VOD this week, ahead of a PBS streaming debut later this year.