The armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine has received scant attention in the United States, but its impact is felt powerfully in the documentary The Distant Barking of Dogs, now in competition for an Academy Award nomination.
The film unfolds from the perspective of a 10-year-old boy who is being raised by his grandmother Alexandra in a village in Eastern Ukraine that sits on the front dividing Ukrainian forces from Russian-backed separatists.
“There’s these people around and you can look at them and see that person has a film in them that’s worth watching,” notes director Simon Lereng Wilmont. “And I felt that way with Oleg and Alexandra right away.”
The pair prove as compelling as any gifted actors, photographed in rhythms of daily life that might appear unexceptional if not for the punctuation of exploding shells and distant gunfire. Their village has largely been depopulated of everyone but military personnel, but Oleg and his grandmother remain, with no other option apparently available.
“When the soldiers arrived, people moved away,” Alexandra says in voiceover. “But we are not moving. Like we say in Ukraine, ‘Every dog is a lion in its own home.’”
Wilmont says he didn’t spend time worrying about audience reaction as he made his documentary.
“I fell completely in love with the family, and if I was the only one that would ever see this film, so be it,” he comments. “To me, it was such an amazing experience just being let into their lives and being able to experience life—such brutality but also such beauty—that I never doubted that people really would see it in the end.”
The film is not built around traditional “narrative beats” but a succession of finely-observed moments—as when Oleg and his younger cousin swim in a nearby body of water, or huddle under blankets in the cold, or when Oleg visits the grave of his late mother, painting the cross above it a shade of bright blue.
“I decided that the only narrative would be time…nature changing through the seasons—because war in these parts is so intimately entangled with the seasons. Nobody wants to fight in winter because it’s cold,” Wilmont explains. “Then everybody wants to fight in summer because it’s warm and you get a little bit of vodka and then, ‘Oh, they’re gonna have it!’ The war is a backdrop. I wanted that to change with the seasons.”
The director chose not to indicate in the film how Oleg lost his parents.
“We did scenes that would explain what happened to both mother and father but in the end there was so much [other] material and really important stuff that we needed to put into the film that that story seemed more like ‘duty’ material,” notes Wilmont. “So very quickly it was pushed out and [we] said, ‘Is it even important?’ You have this kid, he’s living with his grandmother…This is the ‘now’ that we’re focusing on. That’s the important stuff because the now is where they’re surviving war. And so it had to go, to give place to all the other important emotions and experiences that were occurring right in front of me.”
Wilmont says the idea for the film’s title came to him after a soldier explained why there are so many dogs around—they act as a “primitive warning system,” responding more quickly than humans to ominous noise.
“Everything just clicked into this picture that the distant barking of dogs meant that the war was just over there on the other side of the hilltop by the village,” he observes, “and that it was coming, or it might just be a risk that it might be traveling this way. And that seemed very menacing, but at the same time, a very clear picture of how it felt like to be in that village.”
The Distant Barking of Dogs has been celebrated at film festivals around the world, including IDFA in Amsterdam and CPH:DOX in Copenhagen, in Wilmont’s native Denmark. The Scandinavian country has become a hotbed of documentary filmmaking in recent years; Copenhagen-based Final Cut for Real produced Wilmont’s film and the Oscar-nominated documentaries The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014). The company co-produced last year’s Academy Award-nominated Strong Island.
Funding from the Danish government has helped develop nonfiction filmmaking, but there is another reason for Denmark’s flourishing documentary culture, Wilmont says.
“Most importantly, in my view, is that we had a film school [with] a documentary department and the head of that documentary department had a very clear idea that it’s actually not interesting what the film is about, it’s more interesting who makes the film,” he notes. “He insisted that we should be working with the other departments of the film school. We should be stealing their photographers, we should be stealing their editors, we should be seducing their sound people to work with us…And that I think heightened the level and made [documentary] more cinematic in a way.”