There’s a facility in eastern Ukraine where parents who can no longer care for their children can drop them off for nine months. If they can get their act together in that time, then they can pick up their kids and go home. If they can’t, then the abandoned child is put into the foster care system.

The Lysychansk Center for The Social and Psychological Rehabilitation of Children is in the Donbas region, which has been at war with Russia since 2014. The effects of the long battle have depressed the area considerably. Poverty is rampant, as is alcoholism. Almost all of the children left at the center have drunks for parents. When the kids call home, their most common question is: “Have you been drinking?” Most of the time, the parents don’t even answer the phone. The children know why.

Directed by Simon Lereng Wilmont, A House Made of Splinters—nominated for the 95th Academy Award for Best Documentary and available now on VOD—is heartbreaking. Wilmont filmed at the center for over two years, capturing more than 250 hours of footage of the children and social workers. There are brief moments with the parents, but their presence exists primarily in their absence. Instead, Wilmont focuses on the children at play with others and by themselves.

What Wilmont captures is a cycle. Through three of the children he documents how one exits the center, and another arrives to take their place. Sadly, the cycle extends well beyond departures and arrivals. As one of the social workers explains in the voiceover, the behavior is cyclical, too. Daughters abandoned by their alcoholic mothers grow up, turn to the bottle and return to the center, this time to drop their own child off. “They ask, ‘Do you remember me?’” the social worker recounts. “‘I do,’ I say. ‘I wish I didn’t, but I do.’”

That same worker calls Lysychansk Center “a house built of sorrow,” and downs the halls and in the rooms, you can see why. Two girls discuss if their mothers let them drink alcohol and if they like it. Even at this early stage, they’ve already learned to lie about how much they’ve had and if they like it. They are 8 years old. Another child, a year or two older, acts tough, smokes with the teenagers, and wrestles with his emotions, which still come easy. But you can see a darkness building behind his eyes, a hardening that exists in the abandoned.

A House Made of Splinters is not an easy watch. Simon provides minimal context, which makes the first half of the documentary feel like it’s drifting. But then it snaps into place, and the drift is replaced with hopelessness. A House Made of Splinters shows the effect a long, drawn-out war can have on the generation living through it and the ones to follow. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 26, 2022—weeks before the current Russian invasion. The cycle Simon manages to capture has started again.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A House Made of Splinters (2022)
Directed by Simon Lereng Wilmont
Produced by Monica Hellstrøm
Starring: Marharyta Burlutska, Anjelika Stolyarova, Olga Tronova
Final Cut For Real, Not rated, Running time 87 minutes, Opened digitally on Feb. 21, 2023.