The Distant Barking of Dogs
Directed by Simon Lereng Wilmont
War is a common subject for filmmakers, and for good reason. It captivates audiences in its portrayal of humanity’s foibles, showing the depths to which human behaviour can sink and the casualties of victory. Thematically, war in film often acts as a vehicle through which its employer exposes more fundamental aspects of life: love, comradery, sacrifice, loss. In choosing a decidedly different perspective from which to approach the experience of war, The Distant Barking of Dogs is able to wield emotional power sometimes untapped in more conventional approaches to the subject.
Simon Lereng Wilmont’s documentary film follows the daily lives of a family in eastern Ukraine. In particular, the lens gives close attention to 10-year-old Oleg, a bright and bug-eyed orphan that lives with his doting grandmother, Alexandra. Conflict between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russia separatists which has marred the region since 2014 is the looming backdrop to this personal and sensitive portrayal of a family torn apart by war. Oleg and Alexandra’s home is located in Hnutove, which is a mere mile from the epicentre of the conflict on the Russian border.
We learn early on that Oleg’s mother was a casualty of the war. While the whereabouts of his father is not conveyed, one doesn’t need much help guessing his fate. Houses throughout the town have been brought to rubble. Gun shells line the streets. Mortal blasts can be heard almost constantly.
Despite this dangerous environment, Oleg and his grandmother’s days have routine. They chop firewood to build fires to stave off the oppressive cold. They do their grocery shopping. They lay flowers at the cemetery where Oleg’s mother is buried.
Oleg attends school. This is where any sense of normalcy one might have begun to associate with his life is shattered. Some army officers stand at the front of the class, educating the children about the dangers of war. Terms like ‘butterfly mines’ and ‘shrapnel bombs’ are added to the children’s impoverished vocabulary. Even one of Oleg’s peers joins in on the knowledge sharing – he explains to his classmates what one should do in the event they happen upon a road mine. Oleg is disinterested by most of this. It’s as if the conflict – and the very fear of injury and death – has become banal.
Oleg prefers to spend his time with his younger cousin, Yarik, and an older neighbourhood boy, Kostya, roaming through deserted warehouses and swimming in the nearby river. Always present is the innocence and naivety of the children. They mischievously throw rocks and smash bottles, as if the conflict is some unreal thing happening elsewhere – across the river, over the hills, out of sight.
One day Oleg suggests to Yarik that they should “jump into the river and cross it to see what’s there.” Yarik flees his cousin instantly, as if even the thought of what lies yonder cannot be accommodated.
But of course, the realities of their predicament cannot be ignored for long. Oleg and Alexandra spend nights in fear, cradling each other as mortar fire surrounds the town. Oleg asks the matriarch if the explosions scare her. She is unequivocal is her reply: “This is very scary, sweetie.”
Nevertheless, Alexandra’s fears are not enough to warrant a move away from the threat of the nearby fighting. “We are part of this place, part of this land…our souls are rooted in this house,” she says. Although others moved away when the soldiers arrived, they would not. “Every dog is a lion in its own home,” she says, defiantly.
Wilmont’s camera captures these characters in quiet moments, lending depth to scenes sober and serious. He frames his subjects in doorways, capturing their sullen stares out snow-stained windows. They seem almost mannequin like, still and despondent, their expressions not so much of concern but glassy contemplation.
Long, cinematic shots of the barren and lifeless tundra are infused into the film. They serve a reminder that even in a place so poor of warmth and energy, a conflict so violent, so kinetic, can take place.
As the narrative eventually moves through the seasons, we witness moments of light that punctuate these lives of darkness. The children play and laugh. Mothers feed and hold them and begrudge letting go. As the ice thaws, the fighting freezes – we learn that ceasefires have been made. “War comes with seasons of its own,” Alexandra opines. “Hope blossoms again – like greens ready to be pickled in a glass jar. As the season passes, we savour these memories.” But there is a nagging weariness in her. Heavy fighting continues apace. Like the passing of the seasons, the conflict cools only to heat up again.
Under the guidance of Kostya, Oleg and Yarik’s mischief escalates to gunplay. “Is it real?” Oleg asks about the small pellet shooter. Kostya has the scars to prove, if nothing else, the damage sure is. The boys shoot bottles and frogs. When Alexandra finds out, her warning is stern and prescient: “Later on you may be tempted to take a real gun into your hands.” Here, the core questions of the film come into view: what does war do to people over years, over lifetimes? If violence surrounds one’s life so totally – in school, at home, in the destroyed houses next door – is it possible to keep it from manifesting in one’s own behaviour?
Through the film, we grow even closer to Oleg. Wilmont follows him through a procession of distinctly wartime events – a bomb shelter tutorial, a close escape from an explosion by the river. An emerging pattern can be perceived. There are fewer smiles. His laughter – earlier infectious – has become as unpredictable as the foreboding thud of bombs in the night. This is what war does to us. It takes life from the living and denies it from the dead.