A House Made of Splinters review – this extraordinary film about Ukrainian children is almost too much to bear | Television

‘A many of you are going to an orphanage today…no crying now. Please pack your belongings before 9 am. In Lysychansk, in eastern Ukraine, the women who run a shelter for children made vulnerable by violence, war, poverty or their parents’ alcoholism are bound to be lively. Storyville: A House Made of Splinters (BBC Four), Oscar-nominated filmmaker Simon Lereng Wilmont’s documentary about the center, is full of almost intolerably cold, hard truths about what happens to toddlers when society is fractured.

It is, in many ways, an eccentric and disconcerting film. Facts and context are kept to a minimum. We know that children can stay for nine months, after which if they have not found a foster family or have not been able to return home, they must move to the dreaded state orphanage. (If they’re right to fear it, we don’t find out.) But the names and status of the participants must be gleaned gradually. The ages of the four children the film focuses on remain a mystery – around nine to 11 at one estimate, though they could be even younger. The staff aren’t introduced at all, so it’s odd that one of them provides a voice-over that tends towards the lyrical (in Lysychansk, “every 10th door hides a broken family”) and slightly clashes with style naturalist and open of the film. .

However, what extraordinary sequences that naturalism produces. Even allowing for the possibility of the children being so damaged that they simply don’t care to be filmed, Wilmont captures them playing with breathtaking intimacy. They perform dance routines, tell scary stories, cartwheels down the halls, brush a doll’s hair or wave sparklers, all as if the camera wasn’t there. Such beauty can be perceived in three ways: sometimes it is children who are children and who continue to be children despite desperate circumstances. The same activities can be read not as moments of lingering hope, but as glimpses into the lives they have been denied.

Best friends Alina and Sasha. Photo: Simon Lereng Wilmont/BBC/Final Cut for Real

More often than not, it’s both, because we see childish things made ugly. Kolya, who is both a loving surrogate parent for his younger siblings and the centre’s biggest behavioral challenger, tells other children a scary story: “My dad had a binge once. As soon as he drinks too much, he beats my mother or me…” It’s a true story, we are told, which ends with his mother being stabbed. Kolya hangs out with much older boys at the shelter, smokes with them outside the back door, and fights a little too hard. He has thick felt JOKER on his left arm. He is also filmed tenderly reading to his younger sister the fable of the scorpion and the frog whose moral, he says, is: “Never trust people.

The scene is even darker, filmed inside a den made out of chairs and a blanket, where an older girl uses a star-projecting globe like a “crystal ball” to read Sasha’s fortune and of her best friend Alina. “Your parents are going to stop drinking,” she tells Sasha. “You will have a court hearing and you will go home.” Alina is not so lucky. “I see that your mother is going to die”, announces the “seeing” child. “Then you will be adopted by a foster family. They will make you a slave.

Children come and go. We are told that too many of the children who stay in the shelter return a decade or two later, to visit their own offspring – otherwise, when one leaves, another arrives and the former resident is never seen again. or is no longer mentioned. So it’s in the movie. Little Eva dominates the first 20 minutes, with her hopeful phone calls home: “Hi grandma. How are you? Mom is still drinking? Then granny passes for the daughter by filling out the relevant administration forms. Eva is allowed to go live with her, instead of her mother, and her story ends.

Kolya’s mother visits him and his siblings. She’s a bright, straightforward woman who spots the cuts on Kolya’s right arm and firmly tells him to stop, “You’re a man now. Wipe away those tears. Kolya notices the smell of beer on his mother’s breath. We don’t see her again. Kolya ends up in the orphanage.

Most importantly, A House Made of Splinters premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. When the narration refers to “war”, it does not mean the great one that began with the Russian invasion of Ukraine a month later, in February: the knowledge that everything shown in this film is is likely much worse or has disintegrated entirely by 2022. is hard to bear, as is the idea that there are dozens of Kolyas in every UK city, with their numbers growing every day. The film is a beautiful document of some precious lives; what comfort can be derived from this is not clear.