“I set out to find a glimmer of hope among the bad stuff”
An interview with Simon Lereng Wilmont, director of “The Distant Barking of Dogs”
Shortlisted for this year’s Academy Award and voted the Best Documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival, “The Distant Barking of Dogs” follows the travails of 10-year-old Oleg, a Ukrainian boy who lives a stone’s throw from the Russian-Ukrainian battlefront. Living with his loving babushka Alexandra and his younger cousin Yarik, this fractional family must navigate their survival as the rumbling sounds of mortar shells inches ever closer. In his auspicious solo debut feature, Danish filmmaker Simon Lereng Wilmont crafts a delicate and beautiful observational tour-de-force about life in wartime, by turns, intimate, empathetic, and morally urgent. Recently back in Europe from another project in Azerbaijan, and after picking up his own 10-year-old son from the hairdresser, Wilmont speaks about finding Oleg, hope in wartime, and the hard choices of not interfering when his young characters were in danger.
When you set out to make the film, were you looking for a child of Oleg’s age, or did meeting Oleg change your plans for the film?
First I was looking for a kid who was older than Oleg—who was only 9 at the time. Originally, I was looking for 11-14 years-olds. My fixer and I were traveling down the frontlines, and going into public schools, and we asked if we could talk to kids who lived in villages that had been shelled or were close to being shelled. And we asked if they could explain to us what it feels like to be afraid. But not one of the kids could do that. Then one very cold day, I traveled out to Oleg’s house, and after the initial hellos, I asked him. And then he looked at me for a brief second and said, “When they start shooting the canons near my village, I get very uncomfortable. It feels like this invisible hand reaches into my chest and grabs my heart. And every time the shells explode, it feels like that hand squeezes my heart tighter until it’s small and cold.” Then he giggled a little bit, and I knew he was the one.
Since you started making this film quite a few years ago in January 2016 and it’s now been completed for over a year, how do you look back at it? Has it changed for you?
There is no doubt that this film has a special place in my heart in so many ways. I connected to it both visually and thematically to something that I’ve been searching for. So it’s very special for me, and it still is.
Can you talk about your visual choices: It is a such a beautiful film about war and its affects. Why do you choose to film it in this way?
I never set out to find something that’s just pure suffering. I always set out to find a glimmer of hope among the bad stuff. I think that’s the same thing with my visual approach: I really want to celebrate how beautiful the world is. Partially because I believe that contrast can drive a point home. I felt from the beginning that the most important thing about the project was to find a sliver of hope, and in this case, it’s the beautiful love in this family, and the support that they give each other. Even though the film is about war, it really became a film in which war is a backdrop in which we see a beautiful relationship.
As a filmmaker who is an outsider in this situation, how does it impact your approach?
I’m not sure if this is a disadvantage in regards to making films and describing reality. Of course, I have to take greater pains to try to understand these people and to be as honest and real towards them. But that’s the journey in making a film like this. There’s no doubt that time spent with them is key. Because it allows me to understand their reality. When you make a film like this, you engage in a deep relationship in a lot of ways. As I ask them to open up to me, I do the same and that’s how trust is created. I get to know my characters in a way that is similar to a friendship. I know that it’s a very American angle to be wary of coming from privileged places and looking at the misery of the world. But I’m not there to steal anything from them. I’m there to try to explain how these people live, and how strong they are, and why and how they are able to persevere. I’m humbled by the task, and I’m open and honest, and I try to help them as much as they can, and I think that’s the limit of my capabilities.
In terms of helping them, I have to say that the film features several moments where the kids are doing things that could endanger them, and I wonder how you dealt with that, both as a filmmaker and also as a father yourself with a young son?
There has been no other film where I’ve had to make so many ethical snap decisions as this one. You have to understand all the material that didn’t make it into the film. Whenever I interceded, that means that scene is dead because I’m making a verite film. I can’t tell you how many times where I said, ‘you can’t go there’ or ‘please don’t do that.’ At some point, I also realized that I had to be honest about their everyday life. For example, there’s the scene where the mortars are coming closer and closer to them by the river. In a raw version of the film, I told them, “Kids, this is too much, we have to go home, your grandmother will be worried.” And Oleg looks at the camera and just tells me that you can tell her where we are, and we’re not going anywhere. What do you do in a situation like this? If I intercede every time danger is there, and I’ve come to a place where danger is almost constant, then I’ll never be able to describe their reality in an honest way.