'The Distant Barking of Dogs': Film Review | IDFA 2017

Courtesy of International Documentary Festival Amsterdam
Finds beauty and horror on the bleeding edge of war.

Simon Lereng Wilmont's documentary shot in a village near the Ukraine/Russia front line won the 'First Appearance' competition at the Dutch non-fiction showcase.

Presenting war through the "innocent eyes of a child" has been a standby of cinema alike for decades, so all credit to Danish documentarian Simon Lereng Wilmont for making his solo debut The Distant Barking of Dogs feel so memorably distinctive. A fly-on-the-wall portrait of a 10-year-old lad and the village where he lives, just a mile or so from the front line in the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war, it scooped top honors in IDFA's "First Appearance" Competition. Plentiful further festival play is indicated for this Denmark-Sweden-Finland co-production, which could plausibly eke out niche theatrical play in Scandinavia and other socially conscious European markets.

Lereng Wilmont isn't exactly a greenhorn newcomer, having co-directed Graine de Champion (2016) with documentary doyen Viktor Kossakovsky, plus Traveling With Mr. T (2012) with Andreas Dalsgaard. But he nevertheless shows a precociously mature touch here, tracing a couple of traumatic years in the life of fresh-faced Oleg Afanasyev as he grows up amid the cacophony of artillery fire. At especially dramatic interludes, the night skies above his settlement Hnutove (pop. 700) are illuminated by spectacular exchanges of ammunition between the Ukrainian army on the west bank of the Kalmius river and the Russian-backed forces of the "Donetsk People's Republic" on the east.

His mother having died some years before (dad is never mentioned) Oleg lives on the eastern bank with his careworn, physically ailing but proudly resilient grandmother. "We are part of this place, part of this land," she asserts, refusing to quit her home. Oleg spends his free time wandering the picturesque if somewhat trash-strewn countryside with his slightly junior cousin Yarik and is disconsolate when his playmate departs with his mother to supposedly safer environs. But before long, the duo are happily reunited and resume their boisterous camaraderie, often together with the significantly older and bigger Kostya.

In some ways these are just typical boys, indulging in the kind of destructively mindless pursuits familiar to their equivalents in Houston, Hamburg and Harare. But as the film goes on, Lereng Wilmont sensitively dramatizes the unique pressures that come with living adjacent to a war zone, presenting the physical and psychological impacts of such an upbringing on impressionable, malleable young souls. 

Early scenes tend towards the bucolic, even idyllic. In the second half, however, the tone darkens as the loose cannon Kostya introduces his young pals to an adult "toy" in the form of a handgun. An extended sequence in which the trio shoot defenseless frogs in a well makes for very tough viewing; likewise a segment immediately afterward in which Oleg is messily (but, thankfully, not seriously) injured by a ricocheting bullet.

Lereng Wilmont's cameras are often very close-up during Oleg's escapades at home and further afield, but — this being a fly-on-the-wall exercise — are never acknowledged. Indeed, their supposed "invisibility" becomes a nagging distraction at certain junctures, such as when Yarik has departed and Oleg is left to mournfully stare into space: supposedly "alone" but, of course, with the filmmakers just a few feet away. It's not difficult for audiences to suspend their disbelief, however, so effectively do Lereng Wilmont and his collaborators immerse us in the specifics of Oleg's quaintly bygone, alarmingly hazardous world.

Handling his own cinematography, the director conjures some low-key magical sequences at dusk and twilight, aided by a distinctive score by Uno Helmersson and Eric Enocksson, which makes consistently evocative use of what sounds like an antique accordion. Experienced editor Michael Aaglund, cutter of choice of the award-winning documentarian Mahdi Fliefel, trims down what was presumably a daunting trove of footage into a crisp and lean 90 minutes. Kudos also to sound designers Pietu Korhonen, Heikki Kossi and Peter Albrechtsen, who unfussily register every jarring blast and each subliminal rumble to cumulatively soul-shaking effect.

Production company: Final Cut for Real
Director-screenwriter-cinematographer: Simon Lereng Wilmont
Producer: Monica Hellstrom
Executive producer: Philippa Kowarsky
Editor: Michael Aaglund
Composers: Uno Helmersson, Erik Enocksson
Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Feature-Length Competition)
Sales: Cinephil, Tel Aviv, Israel (info@cinephil.com)

In Ukrainian
90 minutes