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IDFA 2017

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The Distant Barking of Dogs: Childhood in a war zone

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- Simon Lereng Wilmont’s documentary, which scooped a prize at the IDFA, follows a boy growing up in the war zone of Donbass

The Distant Barking of Dogs: Childhood in a war zone

Danish filmmaker Simon Lereng Wilmont is known for his child-orientated documentaries, and with his latest film, The Distant Barking of Dogs, he has won the IDFA Award for Best First Appearance at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. The movie is an observational documentary following a year in the life of a ten-year-old boy in a war zone. 

Oleg lives in Hnutovo, a village just one kilometre away from the frontline in Donbass, with his grandmother Aleksandra. His mother has passed away; we get no information on how this happened, but one touching scene sees him visit her grave with his grandma. He hangs out with his younger cousin Yarik, the son of his aunt Alyona, and an older, teenage boy, Kostya.

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The boys spend their days swimming in the river (providing some of the most poetic shots in the film) or breaking bottles with a slingshot, and talking about what makes a real man. It all looks like a normal childhood, if it were not for the sounds of helicopters, gunfire, cannons and Howitzers that we intermittently hear in the distance, and the bullet shells that Kostya is collecting.

In a very emotional scene, at one point Yarik leaves with Alyona and her soldier boyfriend to a safer part of the country, like most of the villagers have done – it is estimated that three million people have been displaced since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine.

The war is edging nearer. After one night of particularly heavy shelling, the school teacher takes the kids for an evacuation drill. The film, which has so far been very quiet, becomes more urgent – from Aleksandra's yard, we watch projectiles against the night sky, and the camera shakes from an explosion that sounds too close for comfort.

The war is also becoming much more present in our heroes' heads – in a voice-over commentary, Aleksandra explains how her hands are shaking uncontrollably and how she starts cleaning in order to hide it from the boys. Yes, Yarik has also returned; he prefers to stay with his grandma than with his mum and her loud boyfriend, far from the kids at school who bully him. 

Wilmont has crafted a beautiful, poetic observational documentary that completely stays out of politics, and focuses instead on Oleg's process of growing up and the changes that his situation brings. The filmmaker gets very close to the protagonists, both visually and emotionally, and we feel like we have got to know them intimately. 

The boys and the grandma make for great film heroes. The children's innocence, which is inevitably being spoiled by the sound of every bullet, is intoxicating, and Aleksandra's kindness and strength are not only admirable, but also completely loveable. 

Wilmont clearly has an uncanny knack for capturing children's themes, which has also been confirmed by the fact that the documentary series project Kids on the Silk Road, on which he is one of three directors, in addition to Jens Pedersen and Kaspar Astrup Schröder, won the Best Roundtable Pitch at the IDFA. 

The Distant Barking of Dogs is a co-production between Denmark's Final Cut for Real, Finland's Mouka Filmi and Sweden's Story. Tel Aviv-based Cinephil has the international rights. 

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