Instead of an impersonal chronicle, Simon Lereng Wilmont brings an intimate, stirring portrayal of life during wartime in The Distant Barking of Dogs, a film that focuses on the life of a 10-year-old boy living on Ukraine’s front lines.
This beautifully shot, fly-on-the-wall-style documentary follows a young Ukrainian boy, Oleg, as he tries desperately to live the life of a normal boy, given the tragic and dangerous circumstances he’s forced to endure. He runs around with his cousin and older friend doing what most adolescent boys do: swimming, fishing, breaking bottles and shooting air pistols.
The big difference in Oleg’s life is that he lives with his grandmother less than a mile away from the frontlines of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. During the day he plays outside with his friends, and in the evening he hides in the basement while the nightly bombings occur.
Remarkably astute for a child his age, Oleg is acutely aware of his situation, yet his childhood innocence prevents him from completely devolving into despair. With a seemingly never-ending onslaught of violence, it’s difficult to watch this boy slowly losing that innocence as the war begins taking a toll on him. Most of the people in his village left already, and after a bombing raid kills their neighbor, his aunt moves away with his cousin, leaving Oleg alone with his grandmother.
Their time apart is short lived, however, as they return a few months later after his cousin had been mercilessly bullied and beaten nearly every day for speaking Russian. The grandmother takes in her other grandson. In addition, her daughter moves away, stating that – if she stayed – her husband would join the Ukrainian army. They know it’s dangerous and not a wise idea to remain in their home, but they have nowhere else to go so they simply endure, praying the conflict doesn’t come closer.
The first year we spend with Oleg seems innocent enough, despite the ever-present sound of firing in the distance. As we enter the second year, the bombs increase in frequency and in volume, and Oleg is visibly showing signs of stress. His friend Kostya, a teen who seems entirely too old to be hanging out with Oleg and his cousin, introduces him to an air pistol. In his first time shooting it, Oleg ends up in the hospital due to a pellet ricocheting into his ankle.
In the final moments of the film, we witness an intimate conversation between Oleg and his grandmother, reinforcing the statement that soldiers are just boys with bigger guns. Beautiful in its bleakness, The Distant Barking of Dogs is a tragic and unique view of war, highlighting not the soldiers but instead an innocent boy stuck in the middle. Oleg’s story is, sadly, likely not an uncommon occurrence, but it’s a story that should be told and seen by as many people as possible nonetheless.