A Tale of Boyhood and Survival in the Crossfires of War, ‘The Distant Barking of Dogs’ premieres Monday, August 5, 2019
A childhood in the shadow of war.
Ten-year-old Oleg lives in the eastern part of Ukraine — a warzone that often echoes with anti-aircraft fire and mortar fire. The Distant Barking of Dogs follows the life of Oleg over a year, witnessing the gradual erosion of his innocence beneath the pressures of war. While many have already left this dangerous area, Oleg remains with his grandmother, Alexandra who has taken care of him since the death of his mother. Having no other place to go, Oleg and Alexandra stay and watch as others leave the village. Where Oleg and Alexandra are the only true constants in each other’s lives, the film shows just how fragile, but crucial, close relationships are for survival.
Directed by Simon Lereng Wilmont, The Distant Barking of Dogs has its national broadcast debut on the PBS documentary series POV and pov.org on Monday, August 5 at 10 p.m. (check local listings). POV is American television’s longest-running independent documentary series now in its 32nd season. In late 2018, the film was shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature for the 91st Academy Awards.
Through Oleg’s perspective, The Distant Barking of Dogs examines what it means to grow up in a warzone. It portrays how a child’s universal struggle to discover what the world is about becomes interlaced with all the dangers and challenges the conflict presents. While waiting for the war to end, Oleg enjoys hanging out with his younger cousin Yarik and an older boy, Kostya. Together they go on adventures, talk about what makes a real man, and test each other’s boundaries, sometimes going too far.
A tender opening scene depicts Oleg and Alexandra as they are, working through their morning routine of chopping firewood. Televised reports of the ongoing war loom in the background, drowning out their simple moments of laughter as they prepare to visit Oleg’s mother’s grave.
Standing above his mother’s grave, Oleg asks her: “I miss you. Do you miss me too?”
The inescapable narrative of war follows Oleg everywhere he goes. In his classroom, lectured by military personnel on the dangers of living in a warzone, the children eagerly share their stories of the different mines they’ve identified. After school, Oleg travels with friends, exploring abandoned buildings and collecting shells of bullets along the way. They discuss their encounters with falling bombs and the deaths they cause, making distinctions between “people” and “soldiers.”
Alexandra describes the sounds of a shell exploding just two houses away onto a neighbor’s home, decapitating their neighbor in the falling debris. Throughout the film, she expresses her responsibility to the boys’ safety—there is strength in their bond, but soon the extended family will be separated from one another. In an exhausted lecture, she explains to the boys that Yarik and his mom will be moving in with a soldier that Yarik’s mother has fallen in love with, far away to safety.
When Oleg and Alexandra are left alone after their departure, Oleg partners with Kostya to explore their surroundings. Collecting sticks as bombs echo in the near distance, Kostya asks Oleg if he wants to go home, to which Oleg responds to the older boy, “No. We’re men. We have to be able to endure everything.”
“The Distant Barking of Dogs provides a devastating portrait of childhood in the midst of war,” said Justine Nagan, executive producer/executive director for POV/American Documentary. “The boys’ evolving sense of masculinity, their proximity to violence, and the tender stewardship of Alexandra make for a unique understanding of what it means to grow up in a warzone.
In my two previous films, I followed children who lived in very safe worlds. Their lives get knocked out of balance temporarily, and we follow them in their individual struggle to back on their feet again, growing wiser from the experience. That made me think about what it would be like if the situation was completely turned upside down: how does a child find safety and security in a chaotic world?
In The Distant Barking of Dogs, I follow 10-year-old Oleg, who lives with his grandma in a war zone in the eastern part of Ukraine, under a mile from the frontline. I spent time in the area researching, and I remember the first time I met him. He immediately stood out. I asked if he could describe how it felt to be scared. He looked at me and without hesitation and said, "If you can imagine a hand reaching in and grabbing your heart. When the first explosions sound, after the cannons have fired, the hand starts squeezing your heart. Then it gets all cold, too." It was then I knew I had found my main character.
Shortly after, I met his grandmother, Alexandra, an amazing, loving and strong woman. It was obvious to see how close and special the bond between the two of them was. Their house still showed signs of shelling and desperately needed repairs, but it was filled with warmth and laughter. Most of the village had been forcibly displaced, often including close friends and relatives, leaving behind a vacuum of activity where time did not exist. But there was always a warm meal ready and a good story waiting to be shared in their house. Life was calm and beautiful, as it should be. For a second, you almost forgot about the war. Staying there long enough, though, I soon realized that this bubble of safety was just an illusion. A brittle illusion that could shatter violently and often unexpectedly, to reveal the very real and dangerous world that Oleg and Alexandra really live in.
The film is about how people deal with the cracks in that illusion and about the human drive we have to survive no matter what. How, even amidst the most impossible circumstances, we build illusionary worlds for ourselves in which we can find comfort and warmth, because we can't exist for long in chaos. Even if the illusion is demolished over and over again, we still keep building it back up again. That kind of tenacity is incredibly beautiful to me.
I am also reminded of the importance of the people who surround us by the mutual dependency that Oleg and his grandmother have developed. They share a love for each other. Without one, the other would collapse. They live in two different worlds. His world is immediate: he reacts to what happens and quickly suppresses the bad things. She, on the other hand, knows that the things yet to come can have terrible consequences for them. In the film, Alexandra keeps the big, bad world away from Oleg as long as she can. That's what makes it possible for him to be a child long enough to give her the joy and hope that she need to survive and keep up the illusion.
—Simon Lereng Wilmont, Director, The Distant Barking of Dogs
About the Filmmakers
Simon Lereng Wilmont, Director/Cinematographer
Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, Simon graduated as a Documentary Film Director from The National Film School of Denmark in 2009. The Distant Barking of Dogs is Simon’s debut feature documentary and his fourth film at Final Cut For Real. It premiered at IDFA 2017, and was awarded Best First Appearance. Since then, it has won more than 30 awards worldwide, among these the McBaine Documentary Feature Award at San Francisco's SFFILM Festival, Best Nordic Dox at Gothenborg Film Fesitival, Audience Award at Nordic Panoarama and been nominated for a European Film Award (EFA 2018) and shortlisted for an Oscar 2018. As a director, his films also include short docs like Dormitory Master (2009), Above Ground, Beneath the Sky (2008), Chikara – The Sumo Wrestler’s Son (2013) and The Fencing Champion (2014). Simon also holds a BA degree in Japanese, with modules in Film and Science, and Visual and Audited Anthropology from University of Copenhagen.
Monica Hellström, Producer
Monica Hellström has been a producer at Final Cut for Real since 2010. She previously worked at Upfront Films and The Danish Film Institute's Film Workshop. She graduated from EAVE Producer Workshop in 2010, holds an MA in film from the University of Copenhagen (DK) and a BA in film from the University of Bedfordshire (UK). She co-produced (selected): The Nile Hilton Incident by Tarik Salah (won Gran Jury prize: World Cinema Dramatic at Sundance Film Festival 2017), Concerning Violence by Göran Olson (Nominated at Sundance Film Festival, Won the Cinema Fairbindet Prize at Berlinale 2014), Varicella by Victor Kossakovsky (2015). Produced: The Dvor Massacre (2015), The Fencing Champion (2014) and Chikara –The Sumo Wrestler’s Son (2013) by Simon Lereng Wilmont, (both premiered at IDFA, won the Jury Award for Medium length Documentary and Best Short Children Documentary Award at Al Jazeera Film Festival) and MoonRider (2012) by Daniel Dencik (Premiered at Karlovy Vary).
Director: Simon Lereng Wilmont
Producers: Monica Hellström, Sami Jahnukainen, Tobias Janson
Editor: Michael Aaglund
Original Music: Uno Helmersson, Erik Enocksson
Executive Producers for POV: Justine Nagan, Chris White