The Distant Barking of Dogs
Director/ Simon Lereng Wilmont
Watched on P.O.V.
This tender, quiet film about two young boys’ day-to-day experiences in a rural slice of Ukraine during wartime, is both beautiful and aimless. The Dutch director and cameraman Simon Lereng Wilmont apparently spent 3 years filming the boys, cousins Oleg and Yarick, and their grandmother as they wait out Vladimir Putin’s military assault on their independent country.
Wilmont’s eye is sensitive, his distance intimate. His direction is unhurried and respectful. He’s obviously gained the trust of his subjects; the boys nor their grandmother ever seem to be performing for the camera. But at 52 minutes, edited down from the film’s festival-length of 90 minutes, the movie still somehow manages to feel repetitive and unsubstantial.
Perhaps the longer cut would help us feel the passage of time more acutely. Maybe there are a couple of dramatic moments that might have upended the rhythm of the picture, its anticipated beats. As it is, the distant explosions of bombs rather than the distant barking of dogs function as off-screen markers of disquiet and danger, but it is a rather thin sonic hook to hang the film’s momentum on.
More effective is the grandmother, a loving and protective presence who suffers from debilitating anxiety, yet still manages to be the one constant in the kids’ lives. I wondered if her voice-over, which is brief, poetic, and expository, was necessary for the film. It was obviously scripted, which left me wondering if these were really her words or words Wilmont crafted for her.
There is a development towards the end, involving a gun, an errant bullet and victimized frogs, that amplify the film’s subdued message of war’s effect on nascent masculinity. It is disturbing but also a tad on the nose; it seems like a simplistic concession to third act prerequisites rather than an earned moment.
Overall, The Distant Barking of Dogs joins Of Fathers and Sons and Angels Made of Light in what looks like another film festival sub-genre: children of war. But as with both of those films, there is an almost patronizing expectation that the innocence of the children and their occasional wise-beyond-their-years utterances be enough to sustain a film.