Oscar-nominated A House Made of Shards: Interview with Simon Lereng Wilmont
How the Ukrainian frontline became the unlikely setting for a portrait of a halfway house for vulnerable children.
Documentary filmmaker Simon Lereng Wilmont won a Peabody Award in 2017 for his film “The Distant Barking of Dogs,” which centers on a young boy living with his grandmother in Ukraine during the war. When Wilmont learned that she was terminally ill, he wanted to know: what happened to that boy? He began visiting orphanages near the Ukrainian front lines and quickly learned that the institutions were too big, too uniform. Except for one.
“It felt so different,” the Danish director said on Zoom. “There was a rug on the floor and it was worn out. The paint on the walls was old and chipped, but children’s drawings hung on the walls. And in one of the nearby rooms I saw an old lady trying to teach music to some girls. Many small children were running around in chaos, laughing and chasing each other, and at the end of the corridor, on the old rocker, stood Margarita. She was hugging two children while shouting something into the phone. It was just a feeling of heart and comfort. I was very interested to find out, “Is it like this every day? And if it’s like that every day, what makes this place so special?’”
You can see what the filmmaker describes and more in his heartbreaking “House Made of Shards,” which earned him a surprise Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. The film debuted at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where it won Best Director in the World Documentary section. It will premiere nationally on PBS as part of POV’s 2023 summer season.
The filmmaker discovered a smaller halfway house where children of neglected or abused parents, often drug or alcohol dependent, were cared for while their cases went before the courts. Some ended up in larger orphanages; others found foster homes. Home managers watched “Distant Barking” and welcomed its tiny crew: Wilmont camera and sound, and an assistant director who also served as an interpreter.
When choosing who to follow, “the most important thing for me is that they’re curious about who I am and who my assistant is,” he said. “They have this light in their eyes, they want to talk and they think we’re funny and interesting to hang out with. This is the first step to getting to know each other.”
He started with five children. In the editing room, with great difficulty, he whittled it down to three: two girls and a very emotional boy who played his younger brothers. Joshua Oppenheimer (“The Act of Killing”), whose company Final Cut for Real supported the film, advised during the editing process.
“I really wanted to get them all involved,” Wilmont said. “But after the first cut was done, my editor and I realized—almost mathematically—that we needed at least a certain minute of time with each kid to make the film engaging. You want to begin to empathize and really live the lives of these children, not about a voyeuristic, more catalog-like work. The hardest decision was to take two other stories, but there was no way around it, because otherwise it would have been a very cold film.”
Approaching the children required support. “We had a close dialogue and collaboration with the social workers because they were able to teach us so much about how to navigate in this environment,” he said. “We constantly discussed where our boundaries are. They knew where I was going.”
It helped that Wilmont had two young children at home, she said. “And I love hanging out with them as much as I love hanging out with these guys. Hopefully the children can feel this too. These kids need to be seen; they were in a world where perhaps not too much attention was paid to them.”
It was a challenge to prevent the children from appearing in front of the camera, “getting them to understand that ‘No, no, no, no, I want youWilmot said. “We spent a lot of time reminding them, ‘If there’s something you don’t want us to film, walk away, put your hand up, turn away, or do something to let us know that’s not what you want.’ .’ When they did that, even though there were some really good scenes, I put the camera down. When they saw that, it gave them some respect that I was true to my word.”
The filmmaker considered shooting some of the parents at home, but decided against it. “I learned during the trip that their lives are much more complicated and nuanced,” she said. “I felt like I couldn’t shoot it without it being too easy to judge. So I decided to leave that part out of the film and only hear or imagine the outside world from the perspective and story of the children.”
One mother she filmed at the halfway point “went to great lengths to clean herself up and introduce herself while she was there,” Wilmot said. “She has five children with five different men. As the child grows up, she has to move on, so to speak, because the men she chose are not the salt of the earth. It was his way of surviving because he had no place of his own. According to Margarita, one of the reasons these women leave their children to the state is because after many years of trying to take care of them in conditions they know are not ideal – living with a man who is drunk or even violent every day. but since they have no escape route, they have nothing – they feel that five meals a day in the orphanage is a better option.”
After production, the producers hired a psychologist to be available to the children if they wanted to talk. A psychologist was in the house on the first day of the Russian invasion; they said the children were herded onto trains and taken to western parts of Ukraine for their own safety. Later, some of them will probably go to temporary orphanages in Europe.
Even before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Wilmont began to raise awareness of vulnerable children through an NGO. “When The 24th happened,” he said, “the number one priority in the movie was to try to raise as much money as possible to continue their work, helping not only our kids in the movie, but the rest of the country with the internally displaced.”
The protagonist of the film is the house itself; its narrative is narrated by the voice of Margarita, who has worked there for 30 years. “At first, I thought the house should make a sound because so much fate has passed through the house,” Wilmont said. “And you know, if the walls could talk, we’d hear tales that surprise and horrify us, and hopefully see beauty and humanity. But it also occurred to me that these children make up this house. These children were made of something else, but now they are one.
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