‘A lot of you are going to an orphanage today … no crying now. Please pack your things by 9am.” In Lysychansk, eastern Ukraine, the women who run a residential centre for children left vulnerable by violence, war, poverty or their parents’ alcoholism are necessarily brisk. Storyville: A House Made of Splinters (BBC Four), the Oscar-nominated film-maker Simon Lereng Wilmont’s documentary about the centre, is full of almost intolerably cold, hard truths about what happens to little ones when society is fractured.
It is, in many ways, an eccentric and bewildering film. Facts and context are kept to a minimum. We know the children can stay for nine months, after which if they haven’t found a foster family or been able to go home, they must move to the dreaded state orphanage. (Whether they are right to dread it, we don’t discover.) But the names and status of the participants have to be gleaned gradually. The ages of the four children the film focuses on remain a mystery – roughly nine to 11 at a guess, although they could be even younger. The staff are not introduced at all, so it is odd that one of them provides a voiceover that tends towards the lyrical (in Lysychansk, “every 10th door hides a broken family”) and jars slightly with the film’s naturalistic, open-ended style.
Yet, what extraordinary sequences that naturalism produces. Even allowing for the possibility that the kids are so damaged they simply do not care about being filmed, Wilmont captures them at play with breathtakingly delicate intimacy. They perform dance routines, tell scary stories, do cartwheels in corridors, brush a doll’s hair or wave sparklers, all as if the camera were not there. Such beauty can be taken in three ways: sometimes it is children being children and continuing to be so despite desperate circumstances. The same activities can be read not as moments of hope persisting, but as glimpses of the lives they have been denied.
More often, it’s both at once, as we see childish things made dreadful. Kolya, who is both a loving surrogate parent to his younger siblings and the centre’s biggest behavioural challenge, tells some other kids a spooky tale: “My dad went on a binge once. Whenever he drinks too much, he beats my mum or me …” It’s a true story, we’re told, that ends with his mum being stabbed. Kolya hangs out with much older boys at the shelter, smoking with them outside the back door and play-fighting a bit too forcefully. He has JOKER thickly felt-tipped on his left arm. He is also filmed tenderly reading his younger sister the fable of the scorpion and the frog, the moral of which, he says, is: “Never trust people.”
Even darker is the scene, somehow shot inside a den made of chairs and a blanket, where an older girl is using a star-projecting globe as a “crystal ball” to read the fortunes of Sasha and her best friend Alina. “Your parents will stop drinking,” she tells Sasha. “You’ll have a hearing in court and you’ll go home.” Alina is not so lucky. “I see that your mother will die,” the child “clairvoyant” announces. “Then you’ll be adopted by a foster family. They’ll make you a slave.”
Kids come and go. We’re told that all too many children who stay in the shelter return a decade or two later, to visit their own offspring – otherwise, when one leaves, another arrives and the former resident is not seen or spoken of again. So it is in the film. Little Eva dominates the first 20 minutes, with her hopeful phone calls home: “Hi Granny. How are you? Is Mum drinking again?” Then granny comes through for the girl by completing the relevant admin forms. Eva is permitted to go and live with her, instead of her mother, and her story ends.
Kolya’s mother does visit him and his siblings. She is a bright, direct woman who spots the slash marks on Kolya’s right arm and firmly tells him to stop it: “You’re a man now. Wipe those tears away.” Kolya notes the smell of beer on his mother’s breath. We don’t see her again. Kolya ends up at the orphanage.
The kicker is that A House Made of Splinters premiered at the Sundance film festival in January. When the narration refers to “war”, it doesn’t mean the big one that began with the Russian invasion of Ukraine a month later, in February: the knowledge that everything shown in this film has presumably got much worse or disintegrated entirely during 2022 is hard to bear, as is the thought that there are scores of Kolyas in every British city, their numbers growing daily. The film is a fine document of a few precious lives; what comfort can be taken from that is unclear.