The Distant Barking of Dogs
(Denamrk/Finland/Sweden, 86 min.)
Dir. Simon Lereng Wilmont
“Every dog is a lion in its own house.”
It is almost a cliché at this point for documentaries about war to focus on the neutral, innocent civilians who could not care less about the conflict and just want to get on with their lives. At first, The Distant Barking of Dogs seems to be one of these—it is; and that is a fine thing for it to be—but it is also, by the end, something more, something darker.
The film is about two little boys—cousins Oleg and Yarik—and their grandmother living in eastern Ukraine during the ongoing conflict there. The kids do what kids do: roughhouse, swim in the stream, smash bottles with an older boy, Kostya. It would all seem totally normal except for the bombs constantly exploding in the distance. Mixed in with the kids’ vocabulary of play and exploration are words like mortar, howitzer, bomb shelter.
As the film progresses, things hit increasingly close to home. Yarik and his mother leave for the safer western part of Ukraine, and when they return, it turns out the kids there beat him up for speaking Russian. Kostya brings the boys to an abandoned barracks and tells them he once tried to sell fish there, only to have a drunk soldier aim his machine gun at him and tell him to go away. The kids’ antics also become increasingly affected by the war going on: it starts quietly with Oleg in all innocence espousing a philosophy of stoic masculinity and culminates with the three of them playing dangerously with a gun. Oleg and Yarik’s grandmother’s health also takes a hit from the stress of the war.
It’s that stuff, which sets The Distant Barking of Dogs apart. It’s not just about the trauma of war, or the paralysis imposed on civilians, but the ways in which war reproduces itself through the constant spectre of violence, through the houses and homes it breaks, through the social ruptures it produces. There is a world of difference between the kids’ innocent play-fighting and the real violence near the end of the film, but with the war confusing those distinctions, it falls to the kids’ grandmother to try to restore and maintain normalcy with them against long odds.
Director Simon Lereng Wilmont’s approach, which resembles classic Terence Malick in its mix of observation with occasional poetic voiceover, always keeps the violence at a distance while focusing on Oleg and his family and the starkly beautiful landscape. It’s an approach that is perfectly suited to the Ukraine conflict, which always seems to be at a simmer, affecting the population as much through displacement, the erosion of institutions and infrastructure and the faultlines it reveals within the Ukrainian populace as through direct violence.
The Distant Barking of Dogs screens:
-Tues, May 1 at 3:15 PM at Hart House
-Thurs, May 3 at 9:30 PM at TIFF Lightbox
Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.