×
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

  • Inside Amazon's New Feature Film Strategy

    Amazon's New Film Strategy: Straight-to-Service Titles and Starry Sundance Buys

    It was close to midnight when Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke got the text. The company had failed in its quest to acquire “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” a body image dramedy that captivated Salke when she saw it at Sundance. A sales agent on the project messaged her to say that a competitor offered a [...]

  • Alfonso Cuaron71st Annual Writers Guild Awards,

    Alfonso Cuarón on Academy's 'Inevitable' Reversal on Televised Oscar Categories

    Alfonso Cuarón isn’t exactly surprised that the Academy reversed its decision and will now air all the Oscar categories during the live show on Sunday. Feb. 24. Calling the decision “inevitable,”Cuarón tells Variety that he thinks the Academy should take things even further. “Let’s stop calling them technical categories!” he told Variety on Sunday night [...]

  • TorinoFilmLab Announces Selections for 2019 ScriptLab

    TorinoFilmLab Announces Selections for 2019 ScriptLab (EXCLUSIVE)

    The TorinoFilmLab has announced the 20 feature projects and five story editor trainees who have been selected to take part in the 2019 edition of ScriptLab, an initiative focused on the development of fiction feature film scripts in early development stage. Beginning in March, this year’s participants will team up with filmmakers from around the [...]

  • Alita Battle Angel

    North American Box Office Declines From Last Year With Weak Presidents Day Weekend

    “Alita: Battle Angel” easily won a tepid Presidents Day weekend with a $34.2 million at 3,790 North American locations, estimates showed Monday. Overall domestic moviegoing for 2019 has plunged 22.1% to $1.24 billion as of Monday, according to Comscore. That’s $350 million below the same date a year ago and the lowest figure at this [...]

  • Queen + Adam Lambert perform at

    Queen to Perform at Oscars

    Queen will perform at the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, the Motion Picture Academy announced on social media today. The move, which is not completely a surprise, comes in the wake of the blockbuster success of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the biopic about the band and its late singer, Freddie Mercury. The band now performs under the [...]

  • Richard E. Grant Variety Facetime Interview

    Richard E. Grant on How to Survive Awards Season With Flair

    An Oscar would certainly be nice, but Richard E. Grant doesn’t need a golden statue to walk away from this awards season as a winner. The 61-year-old actor landed his first Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Jack Hock, the loyal accomplice of author-turned-literary forager Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in the biopic “Can You [...]

  • Alita Battle Angel

    'Alita: Battle Angel' Banks on Foreign Audiences to Save It From Box Office Disaster

    “Alita: Battle Angel” beat expectations with its $27 million debut at the domestic box office, but Fox’s cyberpunk fantasy adventure has a long road to travel before it can claim victory. When it comes to achieving profitability, the CGI-spectacular may never arrive at that particular destination. With a production budget hovering at $170 million (Fox [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content