The setting: a conflict zone that echoes with anti-aircraft fire and missile strikes. The protagonist: ten-year-old Oleg. With these two cues, Danish director Simon Lereng Wilmont’s powerful documentary The Distant Barking of Dogs tackles the heart-wrenching struggles for life and survival in eastern Ukraine amid the region’s ongoing conflict.
Recently nominated for the Robert Award, the Danish film industry’s most coveted prize, The Distant Barking of Dogs has also been shortlisted for the 2019 Oscars in the Documentary Feature category, bringing it one step closer to its coronation for cinematic achievement.
As the documentary’s successes continue to drum up attention, the team behind the film is in New York to host screenings and raise awareness over Europe’s last conflict. #DenmarkInNY reached out to director Simon Lereng Wilmont to talk about what lessons the viewers can learn from Oleg’s story.
DKNY: Tell us a little about yourself and how you developed an interest in creating powerful documentary films?
SLW: Film is such a powerful medium, and I think that documentaries especially serve to give voice to people or causes that have limited or no voice at all in the fast-paced media landscape. They inspire us, through real people and actions, to better ourselves and affect change — whether in our own life or in society as a whole.
Also, in my opinion life often surpass fiction. Time and time again we see scenes and characters in documentaries which are so larger than life that we would instantly reject them if they were written as fictional characters because they would simply seem too unbelievable and contrived. Yet, here they are — undeniable, unpredictable and wonderful. I love that. There is no better feeling than when I catch one of the unique and beautiful glimpses of raw life that I know has the power to touch, move and inspire people.
DKNY: Your newest film ‘The Distant Barking of Dogs’ just received a nomination for the most prestigious award in the Danish film industry, the Robert Award. Further, the film has been shortlisted for an Oscar which brings it one step closer to what might be the most respected film award in the world. What does that acknowledgement mean to you?
SLW: I am both humbled and deeply grateful for the acknowledgement. It has been a hard film to make on many levels so it means a lot to me to get that recognition. That somebody appreciates the work that has been put into the film makes it even more worthwhile. It has already been an incredible and life-changing experience for me to meet ten-year-old Oleg and his grandmother Alexandra, be welcomed into their life, and to tell their story. I already feel like a winner in so many ways, but it saddens me to know that Oleg and Alexandra are out there and that there seems to be no end in sight in this frozen and somewhat forgotten conflict. So, I would love if the film could bring renewed attention to this particular frozen conflict and its civilians in the North American media landscape. It seems in many ways to have faded away some and there are still people dying on both sides every week.
DKNY: This is not the first time you’ve created films about children. What is it about seeing the world from a child’s perspective that fascinates you?
SLW: It’s true that over the last years I have made films that follow pre-adolescents or teenagers. I think I have been drawn towards this POV because this age is where most of our lives are first touched by the serious realities of adulthood with all its requirements, challenges and demands. Childhood naivety is traded for experience and we discover new truths and possibilities that broaden our horizons. The relationships that we foster during this particular period, as well as the experiences and resulting transformations, send ripples through our lives and it’s a stage in life that I feel shapes us in many ways into the people that we will become later. So, it’s a very dramatic time, and its stories are often universal and should therefore be shared as widely as possible so they can inspire, help and empower people in their lives even though we might be worlds apart. That said, I like to think that I am diverse and that my work continually evolves. So, I am not sure that the next film will be from the POV of a child or even about this age. I just go where fascination and the next story take me.
DKNY: What attracted you to the conflict in eastern Ukraine and why did you feel an urge to tell a story about it?
SLW: I made two short documentaries just before The Distant Barking of Dogs and they both featured children that lived very normal and stable lives. The films each follow a child’s individual struggles to restore stability when the child’s world is knocked temporarily out of balance. Having done these shorts I couldn’t stop thinking about the reverse version of that premise — how children in very unstable and dangerous parts of the world struggle to find some sense of fleeting stability and comfort. That’s what ultimately led me to eastern Ukraine and ultimately to Oleg.
Going there, I initially planed to make a film about what it does to a child to grow up in the shadow of war. How does it affect a child to live in a place where the war is being fought out just beyond the hills in the horizon? This is the sad reality for many children in the world’s conflict zones and I wanted to give the kids caught in this particular conflict a voice too. As it happened, the war swept up close and over us during the filming. So, the film grew to also become a film about what it does to a child to grow up in the midst of war and how crucial family and close personal relationships are if you are to survive with as few inner and outer scars as possible.
As I travelled down the southern part of the frontline with my fixer, I asked all the kids I casted to tell me what it felt like when they were afraid, and none could really answer that question. That is, until I met Oleg. He hesitated for maybe a heartbeat, reflecting, and then looked straight at me with those ice-blue eyes and said, ‘It’s like there is this cold hand reaching into my chest, grabbing my heart, and when the first shells starts to explode, the hand start squeezing it, little by little, until my heart is a little, cold lump. That’s how I feel, when I am afraid’. And that was it for me. I knew I had to make a film about this child and his grandmother Alexandra.
DKNY: What is the most important lesson the viewers can take away from Oleg’s story?
SLW: To me The Distant Barking of Dogs is a film about what growing up in the midst of war does to a child. But more than that, it’s a universal film about how crucial family, mutual dependency and close personal relationships are if we are to survive with as few inner and outer scars as possible when our world is burning. We need to be able to rely on each other more than ever when hard times visit our lives — warzone or not.