Sunday, June 17, 2018

HRW ’18: The Distant Barking of Dogs

During our Civil War, spectators would pack a lunch to watch the battles. These days, war is a far riskier viewing experience. Oleg Afanasyev should know. He lives in the small village of Hnutove, which is so close to front line errant shells seem just as likely to overshoot it as well. Daily life is a challenge there, but it is the only home he and his guardian grandmother have ever known. Afanasyev must deal with the common byproducts of war, including fear and boredom, in Simon Lereng Wilmont’s documentary The Distant Barking of Dogs (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York.

Neither Afanasyev or his grandmother has much to say about politics, but from what we gather, they are Russian-speakers, who identify as Ukrainian. His mother died during his infancy and his father is never mentioned. However, he has a single aunt and a cousin, with whom he is close, in a mischievous boy kind of way, but her lover will take them deeper into Ukraine once he is discharged from the army.

Distant Barking is an immersive, observational film. It never really says anything about Russian military adventurism in Ukraine, because it doesn’t need to. The audience can see the resulting wreckage in nearly every frame. Hnutove, pop. 700 and dropping, is fast-becoming a ghost-town, but Afanasyev and his grandmother are not going anywhere. Partly, it is because they have no place else to go. Language is also an issue, as his cousin learns. Yet, they also feel tied to the land.

This is a film of somber beauty that gives the audience a direct, experiential sense of what it is like to live a literal stone’s throw from a war zone. The word that best describes the scarred environment is probably “ghostly.” Serving as his own director of photography, Wilmont vividly captures the surreal nature of the locale, but his lens also seems to pick up every troubled thought that travels through the open-faced Afanasyev’s mind. Nobody physically dies on-screen, but we can see the protracted death of his innocence happening over the course of two years’ time.

Clearly, Wilmont is well-intentioned, but sometimes he feels too much like a bystander. He seems to accept the cover story that Ukrainian separatists are the ones doing the fighting in the Donetsk region, whereas the truth is they are mostly ununiformed Russian military and mercenaries from Serbia and other nations within the Russian sphere of influence. However, we can certainly see what they have wrought. Recommended for those who appreciate extremely personal documentary portraits, The Distant Barking of Dogs screens tomorrow night (6/18) at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Tuesday night (6/19) at the IFC Center, as part of the 2018 HRW Film Festival in New York.