×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Distant Barking of Dogs’

Simon Lereng Wilmont's deservingly Oscar-shortlisted doc evocatively filters Russo-Ukrainian conflict through the shifting perspective of a pre-adolescent boy.

Director:
Simon Lereng Wilmont

1 hour 31 minutes

There’s rueful misdirection in the title “The Distant Barking of Dogs,” even if it isn’t strictly inaccurate: For much of Danish docmaker Simon Lereng Wilmont’s stoically compassionate fly-on-the-wall wartime portrait, a steady bassline of vocal canine discontent hangs in the background, becoming as integral to the scenery as a summertime cicada chorus. Yet in the tiny Ukrainian village of Hnutove, a stone’s throw from the frontline of the War in Donbass, it’s not the ever-present barking that keeps fretful residents up at night; that’s mere white noise beside the constant rattle of gunfire and shellfire from the adjacent war zone.

For young Oleg Afanasyev, orphaned and living in Hnutove with his wily, resilient grandmother Alexandra, the familiarity of this soundtrack makes it no easier to ignore as the years crawl by. Beautifully observed and edited across a three-year timespan, Lereng Wilmont’s film — an impressive solo feature debut, following an early collaboration with Russian heavyweight Viktor Kossakovsky — subtly depicts the low-level normalization of that panic. An unexpected but eminently worthy selection for this year’s Oscar documentary shortlist, “The Distant Barking of Dogs” has been quietly racking up kudos on the festival circuit since scooping the First Appearance Award at IDFA in 2017. U.S. distribution has yet to materialize, though the Academy’s endorsement should boost the prospects of an unsentimental work that, however upsetting, invites universal empathy.

Though the film fits into a growing subset of cinematic responses to the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and the Russian-supported Donetsk People’s Republic, it demands little knowledge of the situation’s complexities from its audience: After introductory title cards lay out the bare factual essentials, Lereng Wilmont largely assumes the naive perspective of Oleg. Just 10 years old at the film’s outset, his understanding of war comes down to sound and sensation, which is altogether frightening enough.

With his mother having died in unexplained circumstances some years before — painting and maintaining her grave is a fixture of his routine — he is fiercely protected from uglier realities by Alexandra, though she must find her own ways to manage her terror. At times she rocks Oleg and his younger cousin Yarik to sleep as artillery fire blusters nearby; at others, she takes to vigorous housework so the children won’t see her hands shaking. Others in the village, including Yarik and his mother Alyona, attempt fleeing to safety, but Alexandra is steadfast in her determination to weather it out on the frontline: “Every dog is a lion in its own home,” she tells Oleg, and he gradually inherits a measure of her prideful resistance to the horrors around them.

But there’s a downside to that toughening, as hard-won hardiness combines with adolescent macho posturing to dangerous effect. Under the influence of rebellious older lad Kostya, Oleg and Yarik are introduced to the weaponry that is causing such havoc along the banks of the Kalmius River: Firearms, bullets and landmines are fetishized as objects of masculine fascination, casting an alluring sheen to a conflict the boys can see and hear, but still not fully comprehend. Scenes of recklessly cruel gunplay, with cautionary consequences, are the most disquieting in a film that runs on a permanent sense of agitation: Boys may be boys, it suggests, but isn’t that what starts wars in the first place?

Without a word of narration, then, “The Distant Barking of Dogs” deftly weaves a precise coming-of-age narrative into its morally urgent anti-war tableau. Working from several years’ worth of footage, editor Michael Aaglund deserves particular credit for so fluidly tracking Oleg’s maturing personality and perspective against such a disruptive chapter of running history. Acting as his own cinematographer, Lereng Wilmont likewise toggles internal and external crisis with his alert, inquisitive camera, often zeroing tightly in on the anguished faces of his principal subjects before pulling back to reveal a landscape pockmarked by pain and damage. Yet flashes of dusky-lit beauty often survive the surrounding carnage, either in nature or in Oleg and Alexandra’s safe, loving domestic space. “Hope blossoms like greens,” she observes in peculiarly regional fashion, “ready to be pickled in a glass jar.” Lereng Wilmont’s subjects earn their stray moments of rustic poetry; so does his film.

Film Review: 'The Distant Barking of Dogs'

Reviewed online, Saint-Seurin-de-Prats, France, Dec. 29, 2018. (In IDFA, Gothenburg, CPH: DOX festivals.) Running time: 91 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — Denmark-Sweden-Finland) A Final Cut For Real presentation in co-production with Mouka Filmi, Story, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Arte. Producer: Monica Hellstrøm. Executive producers: Philippa Kowarsky, Signe Byrge Sørensen. Co-producers: Sami Jahnukainen, Tobias Janson, Monika Lobkowicz, Sonja Scheider.

Crew: Director, camera (color): Simon Lereng Wilmont. Editor: Michael Aaglund. Music: Uno Helmersson, Erik Enocksson.

More Film

  • Steve Golin The Revenant Spotlight Producer

    'Spotlight' Director Tom McCarthy Remembers Steve Golin as 'A Warrior and a Mensch'

    It was a brutal process to get “Spotlight” made. The movie was dead at least three times before we shot it because of financing problems, studio problems, deadlines, actors’ availability and the time of year we could shoot. There were moments when Steve and I were just going at it. We’d have hilarious late-night correspondence. [...]

  • "A War Within"

    SF Studios Scoops International Sales to 'Grandpas,' 'A War Within' (EXCLUSIVE)

    SF Studios has scooped international sales rights to Santiago Requejo’s heartfelt comedy drama “Grandpas” and Kasper Torsting’s WWI-set Danish love drama “A War Within” in the run up to Cannes. Both films are third-party pickups. “Grandpas” is a high-profile Spanish movie starring Carlos Iglesias (“Crossing Borders”), Roberto Álvarez (“Talk to her”) and Ramón Barea (“Everybody [...]

  • 'Gemini Man' First Trailer Drops With

    Will Smith Faces Off Against Himself in Ang Lee's 'Gemini Man' Trailer

    Will Smith battles a familiar antagonist in the official trailer for Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man” — himself. Paramount Pictures and Skydance Media dropped dazzling new footage of the futuristic sci-fi drama, scored to a haunting version of “Forever Young,” that sees Smith playing an elite assassin. Things get tricky when he finds out the man [...]

  • Werner Herzog

    Film Constellation Boards Werner Herzog's Japanese Film 'Family Romance' (EXCLUSIVE)

    London-based sales house Film Constellation has boarded Oscar-winning director Werner Herzog’s Japanese-language narrative film “Family Romance,” which will have its world premiere in the special screenings section at the Cannes Film Festival. Written and directed by Herzog, the movie was shot last spring and summer in Tokyo and Aomori, Japan, with non-professional actors (Yuichi Ishii, [...]

  • Avengers Endgame Box Office: Can It

    'Avengers: Endgame' Expected to Shatter Box Office Records

    “Avengers: Endgame” has its sights set on world domination. Disney and Marvel’s upcoming superhero epic should light the box office on fire when it launches this weekend, with the hopes of setting domestic, international, and global records. In North America alone, “Avengers: Endgame” is expected to earn between $250 million and $268 million in its [...]

  • Katie HolmesAT&T Presents: Untold Stories Luncheon

    Katie Holmes, Kal Penn Help Decide Winner of $1 Million Filmmaker Grant

    Tribeca Film Festival and AT&T gave one young filmmaker a million and one reasons to rejoice at the “Untold Stories” third annual competition. After a nerve-wracking 10-minute long pitch in front of over 850,000 live stream audience members and a panel consisting of celebrities and industry leaders, filmmaker Kate Tsang was awarded $1 million Monday [...]

  • Reed Hastings seen on day one

    Netflix CEO Reed Hastings' Compensation Jumps 48% to $36.1 Million

    Netflix chief Reed Hastings is being handsomely rewarded for calling the shots at the streaming giant. His compensation package, which is largely in the form of stock options, climbed 48% in 2018 to $36.1 million. That’s up from $24.4 million in the previous year. Hastings’ salary is a relatively modest $700,000, but his stock options [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content