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A House Made of Splinters

The good news: the kids can spend all of their after-school hours together. The bad news: they live in a shelter. (Streaming on Amazon Prime as of March 2023)

Synopsis:  A documentary about the children and staff at a shelter in Ukraine. 

First things first, the building in question is made of concrete, not splinters. It’s a metaphor! Good, because there are little kids living there and nice adults working there.

A House Made of Splinters was shot at a children’s shelter in Eastern Ukraine in 2019-20; before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022. However, in 2014 Russia had already annexed Crimea and separatists in the Donbas (Eastern Ukraine) took over federal buildings which led to fighting with government troops. The shelter is in Lysychansk, about 20 km from the front line.

I know, you are probably thinking: too depressing. But the shelter is, thankfully, not fired on. And the children– who are so worth getting to know– are safe from abusive and negligent parents. Danish film maker Simon Lereng Wilmont spends days and evenings quietly documenting the children as they play, relax and talk with social workers.

This is not an orphanage, but a place for children to live at while their families’ cases are investigated and adjudicated.  Many of the children have been removed from homes with alcoholic parents who neglect or abuse them.  A common situation seems to be a parent going on a bender, leaving the child to fend for themselves. Not surprisingly, the kids stop going to school. Then the schools report to child welfare that a child is truant. The other common situation is that a household has so much loud, alcohol-fueled domestic violence going on, that the neighbors notice and call the police.

The shelter social workers seem very hardworking and sympathetic to the kids. Except for one woman who shows up to load kids into a van for transfer to an orphanage. She announces: No crying! Go pack!  How kind.

The on-site staff process events with the kids and tell them what to expect in the legal process. They also make lots of calls while the kids are at school, trying to make contact with the parents, speaking with (reliable) relatives who might be willing to take in the kids, or finding foster parents. Sadly, the kids make many calls to their moms… who don’t pick up the phones. The shelter’s purview is to keep the kids for nine months, after which they are re-homed at an orphanage. Unless of course, they have another guardian step in or the parents get sober/reform. The latter does not seem to be a common outcome.

A House Made of Splinters profiles four kids who are of elementary school age: Eva, Sasha and Polina (who become friends) and a boy, Kolya who has two younger siblings at the shelter. We see the kids making friends, celebrating holidays, and trying to make contact with parents.

The facility is not large and out in the country a bit. Inside the in-need-of-repairs building (one day the kids have fun bailing out a flooded room) there are decorations and children’s drawings on the walls. The kids’ bedrooms are shared: two bunkbeds per room. There are lounge rooms and carpeted hallways where the kids gather to work on dances to club music with suggestive lyrics, do gymnastics and watch Peppa Pig. 

Eva (looking about eight years old), wants to be reunited with her mother, an alcoholic who neglects her. Fortunately, she has a granny in town who stays in touch with her and the shelter workers. One day, Eva phones her mom…no answer. She calls granny: Do you know where my mom is?  Granny says: No. She must be off drinking.

Over the weeks, the social workers dialogue with Eva. The girl tells them that her mother was sober once–for awhile–and she wants that to happen again so they can live together. Once the girl finally reaches her mom, she gets a heavy dose of Drunken Mom. Mom cries to Eva that she is lonely. The child looks increasingly uncomfortable.  Mom has an idea: Run away! You’ll feel like cheering and crying when little Eva says: Are you crazy?  Good, she won’t be running away from the shelter. This is especially important because it is winter in Eastern Europe!

We get to see a friendship between a shy girl, Sasha and a seemingly confident redhaired girl named Polina. They talk and giggle, sharing confidences. They admit to each other that they have tried alcohol more than once –whether it was with their parent’s knowledge or not, we don’t learn. They agree that it doesn’t taste good.

But even as they go through the rituals of making friends, you can see the overlay of chaos and violence that they re-enact. Polina tells Sasha to fight with her or she won’t be her friend. It’s much better when they fix each other’s hair. Or even when they pretend to be ghosts, swirling sheer curtains around them. These ghosts don’t just say Boo! to scare those they haunt, instead they pledge to murder them. But I guess this is part of the kids working through their feelings.

OIP (3)
The good news: Brother is reading to little siblings. The bad news: The parents won’t be reading to the kids because they are off drinking.

Time marches on and Christmas is celebrated with Nativity costumes and time spent decorating trees. Each child receives a gift for the holiday. Very exciting. But one girl’s talking doll is malfunctioning. The child is getting frustrated, trying to make the toy work and tells the doll:  Maybe I won’t be your friend!  The doll responds approvingly and says: That sounds fun!  Then the girl swears at the doll. This is another commonality: swearing.  The kids have obviously been exposed to a lot of profanity at home, albeit that is not the worst of their experiences.

One evening, some boys gather in a tent indoors . They have a flashlight and commence telling scary stories. Maybe about werewolves who chase campers and stuff? Not exactly. One boy tells a story about his drunken father beating him and his mom. Drunk Dads are a popular scary story topic. Another boy has a very scary story of his Drunk Dad stabbing his mother. He reports that there was a lot of blood. (Thankfully, the mom survived.)

What’s amazing is, even though you can see the shock and sadness on the kids’ faces, they are still driven by the human motivation to seek affiliation. The girls hug and the boys lounge on couches together. These kids also have to get through the developmental stages of childhood — a challenge in itself. Even more so when dealing with trauma and abandonment.

One of the kids trying to find his way is Kolya. A little slip of a pre-pubescent boy, he wants to grow up fast. His mom and stepdad are alcoholics. Kolya is looking for role models. The social workers –all women–are direct, but caring. Kolya says he keeps getting into trouble at the shelter because then his social worker will get fed up with him and he can go home. Once, he even runs back home. His parents are there. Drunk.

Male police officers make group presentations to the older kids. Kolya gets one-on-one talks because he runs away and steals what he can. Recently he has stolen some change. An officer shakes his head and calmly informs the boy that once he is fourteen years old he could be sent to jail for stealing. It’s a scary place, he says.  You don’t want to go there.

When one of the staff asks Kolya how things went, he reports that it was bullsh** and he’s not afraid of the police. So, yeah, he’s not impressed by these level-headed guys. Kolya is impressed by the few high school-aged boys at the shelter. He rough houses with them and sneaks outside to expertly smoke cigs. One of the teens does a tattoo on himself as Kolya watches. When the young artist is finished he shows off the tattoo and asks the boy if he knows what ACAB means. No, admits Kolya. All Cops Are Bastards, says the tattooed guy. So, yes, Kolya is learning some English from his mentor.

But building a reputation as a badass is only part of his story. Remember, I mentioned that he has two younger siblings at the shelter. There is a brother who looks to be about seven years old and a sister who seems about two years old. She toddles around the shelter with a binkie in her mouth while her mom and dad (stepdad?) are too busy getting drunk to visit or return any calls from the welfare workers. Even Kolya knows that his mom got a subpoena in the mail, but didn’t show up at court.

So what does he do? When he’s not emulating the teens at the center, he cuddles with his siblings and speaks nicely to them. Lounging on a bunk bed, he reads a picture book to them. His brother listens raptly. Little sister smiles and rests close to him. The book he read was The Scorpion and the Frog. In the parable, froggy trusts scorpion to do him a favor, but then he’s betrayed when scorpion stings froggy. There is an American version of this story wherein a snake asks a Native girl for a favor. He promises not to bite her. Of course he does. Hey! says the girl, You promised! Then the snake hisses, You knew what I was all along.  I feel like the children could benefit from some gentler story books. After all, they’ve already had lessons about the cold, cruel world.

Alas, Kolya asks his little brother what was the lesson of the story? Before the boy can answer, he tells him, Don’t trust people. This is quite sad. Meanwhile, the staff keep offering him care and tell him that maybe his mom will visit soon. And he continues to look out for his siblings. You can see that they consider him a parent-figure.

A House Made of Splinters isn’t exactly uplifting, but there are good outcomes for some of the children. And the adults who care for the kids are heroes. Also, the parents are actually pretty resourceful: they can find alcohol whether their kids are around or not.

P.S. I realize that alcoholism is a disease that is hard to treat. And economic stresses and personal crises of course increase the likelihood of worsened alcohol consumption. Sadly, many kids effectively lose their lifeline to loving parental care in large part due to addictions. Undoubtedly, there are parents who are highly motivated to get sober for the sake of their children. In any case, the need for children’s shelters around the world will continue.

PPS.  One of the social workers related that life in Ukraine has been hard, but even more so with the war. At the time the movie was made, the Russian Separatist-Ukraine Gov’t War had devastated the livelihoods of people in Eastern Ukraine. Since the Russian invasion in 2022, more than 8,000 civilians have been killed and nearly 8 million refugees have fled their country, while about 6 million people have been internally displaced. The shelter was evacuated, and the children moved to Western Ukraine and other parts of Europe.

Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:

Grade:   A-

Cut to the Chase:  A powerful film about special children and caregivers at a shelter in a country that is hard pressed to provide services.

Humor Highlight:  That sassy doll.

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