Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 06, 2018 4:02 pm 
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A Ukrainian boy on the edge of the war zone

Danish documentarian Simon Lereng Wilmont went to Hnltove, a mile from the front line of fighting between Ukraine forces and pro-Russian separatists four years ago and made this film focused on a boy of ten whose father chose not to flee the fighting. Like many a great documentary this one starts with extraordinary access. Wilmont's fly-on-the-wall technique means he is present at the most intimate moments but never noticed.

Not surprisingly, the film Loreng made won top honors in IDFA's "First Appearance" Competition. Just how dangerous this work was, if you wouldn't guess along the way, is shown at the very outset with footage from a car when there's a big explosion a couple vehicles forward of it, blowing everything away and driving the car the photographer is in off the road.

Oleg is a fiftth-sixth grader, the age of openness, curiosity, good humor. He lives with his grandmother Alexandra, a big tough-minded, warm woman. His father is gone, his mother died years earlier. His aunt Ayosha falls for a soldier who'll take her to a safer place along with her son Yarik, robbing Oleg of his companion for pillow fights and leaving Alexandra and Oleg alone - the more so because most of the village is also gone. There are a few classroom scenes were there were other children - classes on mines and how to be wary of them, what to do if disaster strikes. War is the ever-present thing, with memories of a neighbor who had his head blown off, leaving his wife wandering outside speechless. Alexandra quotes a saying, "Every dog is a lion in its own home." So they are lions who hear howitzers and the distant barking of dogs.

With the older teenager Kostya Oleg goes swimming in the dark, with firing roaring in the distance, and they make a fire. Wilmont must have pledged, "If they go, I go." threw in his lot with them to make this film. It reminds me of the old Life Magazine. A great Life photographer focused on the most human of human interest stories, weeding out anything trivial, unless, in its triviality, it was tremendous. He took me as a boy to far other worlds I could escape into. But this world I only wish did not exist. Yarik comes back for some reason, and Oleg has his company again. But the situation is wearing everyone down, us too, the viewers, the mood grows darker, and when Kostya brings a pistol, it's dangerous. Oleg gets a gash in the ankle from a ricocheting bullet bullet, then they cruelly shoot frogs in a pool, but Wilmont quietly forbears and observes.

It was quiet and lovely for a while, then the fighting started up again. It is not over.

The Distant Barking of Dogs, 90 mins., debuted at International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA). Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, April 2018, where it won the documentary award. See the review at IDFA by Neil Young in Hollywood Reporter for further details.

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