Too often we forget that normal, everyday people are the real victims of war. Soldiers receive public ceremonial burials, but nobody hears about the family blown up by a mortar shell while eating dinner. Plenty of films celebrate military heroism, but few discuss the lives of people trying to go about their daily business while opposing sides slay each other within earshot. Oddly enough, Srdjan Spasojevic probably addressed this most directly in A Serbian Film, though with liberal use of metaphor. Danish director Simon Lereng Wilmont attempts to bring the reality of war home in his documentary The Distant Barking of Dogs, but sadly the message gets muddled in dull direct cinema storytelling.
10-year-old Oleg lives with his grandmother Alexandra in Hnutove, a small town immersed in the War in Eastern Ukraine. He goes to school, minds his grandmother and get into trouble playing with his young cousin Yarik and older neighbor Kostya, who collects war artifacts he finds around town. At night, Oleg and Alexandra huddle in the dark listening to the warring factions bomb each other. As much as the explosions scare Oleg, he’s fascinated by the items Kostya shows him and in his innocence, he still seems to think it is a game.
“…Oleg and Alexandra huddle in the dark listening to the warring factions bomb each other.”
Of course, you can’t help but feel bad for the boy. He doesn’t deserve to live this way, nor does his grandmother or the rest of his family or his neighbors or his schoolmates. Their home is a battlefield. If they left, they’d have nothing, so they stay and hope for the best. It really is a terrible situation with no good solution.
Unfortunately, what could have been a real opportunity to expose the effects of war, but gets lost in Wilmont’s insistence on “pure” journalism. We follow Oleg around town, but we never really get to know him. All things considered, he seems like a pretty well-adjusted kid who loves grandma, the cats, and his cousin. We never get inside his head to understand how the war around him affects his psyche. The times he does act out are all under Kostya’s influence, and it’s uncertain whether he would ever have done these things of his own volition.
“…watch a kid go about his life in the worst of situations.”
Several questions remain unanswered, as well. Where are Oleg’s parents? At one point, Alexandra describes somebody’s violent death in a mortar attack, but it’s unclear who this person was. For that matter, who is Kostya and why is he roaming around the town collecting things and hanging out with much younger kids? What is anyone’s opinion of the war that surrounds them every day?
Despite good intentions, The Distant Barking of Dogs falls drastically short of the powerful impact a film like this should deliver. Instead of learn something about a violent war that we, especially in the US, barely know exists, we passively watch a kid go about his life in the worst of situations. What a missed opportunity.
The Distant Barking of Dogs (2017) Directed by Simon Lereng Wilmont. Written by Simon Lereng Wilmont. Starring Oleg Afanasyev and Alexandra Ryabichkina.
4 out of 10 stars