In the days before Russian forces invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Danish filmmaker Simon Lereng Wilmont – the director of two critically acclaimed documentaries shot in the Eastern European nation – began to field messages reporting of increased hostilities in the restive eastern part of the country.

The director’s feature directorial debut, “The Distant Barking of Dogs,” was filmed in the hamlet of Hnutove, a stone’s throw from the frontline of Donbass, where war has been simmering for the better part of a decade. As fighting there intensified ahead of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Lereng Wilmont and Danish producer Monica Hellström (“Flee”) worked with their assistant director, Azad Safarov, and local production coordinator Lena Rozvadovska to evacuate the film’s two protagonists.

It was a harrowing escape. The filmmakers had arranged for the duo to take a train to the relative calm of Western Ukraine, where temporary housing awaited them. But the train was scheduled to depart the day that Russian forces swept into the country; transportation ground to a halt, stranding the teenage Oleg Afanasyev and his grandmother Alexandra in a region under siege. “I was getting messages like, ‘Pray for us.’ ‘This is hell.’ ‘There’s no way out,’” Lereng Wilmont told Variety. “And that was terrible, terrible, terrible.”

The two eventually made it to safety. In the anxious days that followed, Lereng Wilmont also received word that most of the children at the Lysychansk Center in Eastern Ukraine, the focus of his Sundance prize winner “A House Made of Splinters,” had also made it out of the region with their caretaker, Olga Tronova.

The events of the past two weeks have rattled a filmmaker who has spent the better part of a decade chronicling the fraught lives of Ukrainian children living on the margins of war and coping with its aftermath.

“On my part, it’s frustrating,” he said. “I’m up here in Denmark, and I really want to go down there and do something, but I have to accept that my part probably is the part of getting as much media attention as possible. We’ve had a lot of charity screenings of ‘Distant Barking of Dogs,’ and I think we’ve managed to get people to donate quite a large sum of money to both [Rozvadovska’s] organization, but also other organizations. And we’re not done yet.”

“A House Made of Splinters” (pictured) will screen in competition at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, which runs March 10-20. The festival also announced last week that “The Distant Barking of Dogs,” which won the Golden Alexander award in 2018, would be available for 500 screenings on its online platform, with all proceeds going to Voices of Children, an NGO launched by Rozvadovska and Safarov in 2015 to help children impacted by the war in Eastern Ukraine.

As hostilities escalate, Rozvadovska and Safarov are continuing their organization’s work, establishing a hotline that children across Ukraine can call to connect them directly with specially trained psychologists. “They’re doing their very best not only to help the refugee children in the western part, but also to try and provide as much help to kids who are traumatized all over the country,” said Lereng Wilmont.

The director, who early in his career made a number of documentary shorts about mental health among children and teenagers, said it was the urgent moral question of how they coped with war that drove him to Eastern Ukraine in the aftermath of Russia’s 2014 invasion of the Donbass region. “Where do you go as a child in those very formative years…to find some sense of comfort or some sense of safety if you’re living in a conflict zone?” he asked.

The answer did not come easy, evolving as the director came to better understand life in the region. Preparing for his first visit to Hnutove to film “The Distant Barking of Dogs,” Lereng Wilmont received training from a former Navy SEAL on what to expect in a warzone. But what he found instead was a bucolic village sitting surreally on the fighting’s periphery.

He recalled a warm summer day early in the shoot, as he was filming a group of children playing with toy guns in a cherry tree. “I remember distinctly feeling, ‘What am I doing here, way out in the country? Nothing’s happening. Everybody’s talking about the war, where this is just idyllic country life,’” he said. The thought had hardly left his mind when the sound of artillery fire erupted. Lereng Wilmont threw himself to the ground and scrambled for cover. But when he looked up, he noticed that the children – who by that point in the fighting could tell that the danger was far off – hadn’t even flinched.

In that moment, said Lereng Wilmont, he realized his film would be a way to describe “this normal, boring, beautiful life of a kid” on the fringe of a warzone. “Most of the time, it’s like a normality bubble. It’s like normal, rural life. Like something I would have had, a childhood I would have had,” he said. “But then, once in a while, without any warning, all of a sudden that life is destroyed, like a soap bubble. And then everything just is chaos and fear.”

In his review of “The Distant Barking of Dogs,” Variety‘s Guy Lodge described the “stoically compassionate fly-on-the-wall wartime portrait” as a “beautifully observed” feature that “subtly depicts the low-level normalization” of panic in a time of war. After winning the First Appearance Award at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam in 2017, the film was shortlisted for the best documentary Oscar.

Both that feature and Lereng Wilmont’s follow-up are intimately intertwined. During the shooting of “Distant Barking,” the director explained, Alexandra, the elderly caretaker of the orphaned Oleg, suffered a minor heart attack. Though the stout septuagenarian soon recovered, the episode stayed with Lereng Wilmont long afterward. “I couldn’t quite escape the thought that Oleg can’t be the only one living in a shaky family structure along the frontline,” he said. Two questions arose in his mind: were there many others like Oleg? And where would they go if they were suddenly left on their own?

Those questions eventually led him to the Lysychansk Center for the Social and Psychological Rehabilitation of Children, the setting for “A House Made of Splinters.” Set in a provincial town in Eastern Ukraine, in an institution where the children of unfit parents are sheltered for up to nine months while their next steps are decided, the film functions as a companion piece to “Distant Barking” that focuses less on the immediacy of war than on its aftermath.

While researching the film, Lereng Wilmont visited a series of state-run institutions around the region, but he said he felt the difference “the second I stepped my foot over the threshold” in Lysychansk.

“I noticed it’s full of colors, children’s drawings hanging on the walls. In this room they were singing, in that room they were hugging the adults and running around. A little bit of chaos,” he said. “It just exuded human warmth and happiness. And then I knew this is something so interesting, why this can be so different from the other places that I’ve seen. And then I met Marharyta [Burlutska], and I met Olga [Tronova], and my heart was sold.”

“A House Made of Splinters” premiered in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at Sundance, where it earned Lereng Wilmont the best director award. Variety‘s Lodge called it an “exquisitely intimate documentary” that succeeds in “quietly observing a fragile limbo period from which life can go in any number of directions” for the film’s young protagonists.

The Russian invasion has only complicated those already fragile lives. Though most of the center’s children were evacuated to safety by the Ukrainian government, that flight has also taken a toll.

“It’s done in the best meaning, and also for the physical well-being of the kids, it’s really great that they were evacuated west,” said Lereng Wilmont. “But they were evacuated west from families that they know are still in the area. So obviously, they’re in need of great psychological support at the moment, trying to deal with the fact that they’re away from their families, and the families might be in very dire straits.”

The director has stayed in close contact with Tronova, who is looking after her wards in the relative safety of Western Ukraine, and Burlutska, who refused to leave her hometown. She is currently with her family in Lysychansk, sheltering in basements to avoid the indiscriminate bombing campaign of Russian forces.

“Even though Olga is in the west taking care of the kids and Marharyta is in a basement back east, we decided that this will soon be over,” said Lereng Wilmont. “And when it is we’re going to meet up and we’re going to drink a shitload of vodka together toasting for peace, friendship and the end of war. So I think that frames the mind state of those people. At least that’s also something I cling to, that hope that is still there with them. Because it has to be the thing that dies last.”