By Stephanie Ornelas
If only we could look at the world through the eyes of a child. Simon Lereng Wilmont’s feature film House Made of Splinters helps us do just that by telling the story of a Ukrainian children’s shelter (a temporary orphanage) lensed through the eyes of the vulnerable children who come and go.
What appears to be a cold and uninviting shelter on the outside, is actually a warm, caring space, and the film centers around the caregivers who work tirelessly to provide a loving home for the children as the system decides their fate.
Situated in the middle of a war zone just 20 kilometers from the front line, the shelter is full of children who come from broken homes. The emotional — and sometimes tragic — phone calls between them and their parents give viewers a small taste of the harrowing situations within the foster system. The intimate scenes manage to give a sense of brokenness but also hope, as you witness each child look past their situations to still see the good in life.
In the post screening Q&A, Wilmont joins producer Monica Hellström and editor Michael Aaglund, as the three talk about what inspired them to work on this project, as well as what it was like working with a cast that was primarily children.
“I began researching this topic and found out that there were a lot of kids being removed from their homes and being put in these temporary shelters,” says Wilmont. “These families were really struggling.”
But once Wilmont began visiting these shelters, he explained that tragically, many of them were not in good shape. “It was sort of what you’d expect. These places were institutionalized,” he says.
Then he found one place that was different.
“When I went to this exact shelter, I could feel the warmth. There were warm colors. Sure, it was old and small, but the kids were hugging the adults and everyone was singing. I was taken aback by this. It was then that I knew I wanted to stay and find out what makes this shelter so special,” says Wilmont.
And when it came to working directly with the children, he says that it was actually an easy process, and that the most important thing to keep in mind when working with them is making sure they trust you.
“I talked to the shelter staff as well as psychologists to make sure everything was done the right way,” says Wilmont. “I do my own cinematography, which means it’s only me and the camera. It’s not a big setup. It’s about getting the camera to become invisible to them.”
“More importantly,” Wilmont stresses, “I get on their eye level and I’m respectful. Because of that, they trust me.”
The film centers around a Ukrainian shelter, but Hellström wanted to stress that these stories are not just unique to Ukraine.
“It’s happening in a lot of different places,” she says. “It really is a very universal story.”
The emotional film takes a close look at human relationships and how an ongoing conflict can impact a civil society. But that’s only part of the story, Wilmont says:“I wanted to tell a story of hope and how important it is to not give in to the tragedies that surround us.”
“I was so taken by this shelter, because despite the terrible situation, it’s still this house full of love and optimism for the future. And I think that’s the key to getting this area safe and up and running again.”