While people around the world were left shocked by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the people of Ukraine have been feeling the tragic impact of war long before then. Following the relentless work of social workers in war-torn eastern Ukraine, “A House Made of Splinters” is a vulnerable portrait of a remarkable orphanage that provides a welcoming, supportive space for children against all the odds.
Whether due to addiction, poverty or violence, there are any number of reasons children end up at the Lysychansk Center for The Social and Psychological Rehabilitation of Children. Some of the children cause trouble as they struggle to embrace their childhood while pursuing maturity and adulthood. But as a whole, the children are grappling with the consequences of war as they grasp onto any autonomy and childhood wonder they can. The social workers there not only create a safe haven for these children, but one where they can explore and develop freely before the state decides their fate when their nine-month stay concludes.
Despite rarely leaving the shelter and outright avoiding depictions of war and conflict in eastern Ukraine, “A House Made of Splinters” nonetheless depicts the devastating impact of war on Ukrainian families. For many with the privilege of distance from Ukraine, literally or mentally, it can be easy to forget that Ukraine’s war with Russia did not start with the invasion in 2022, but several years prior in 2014. The documentary, using a fly-on-the-wall approach, intimately depicts the longstanding impact of war on the generation of children born into conflict.
When war begins, those with the least amount of authority and autonomy frequently suffer the most — and the kids in “A House Made of Splinters” are no exception. Barely born into the world, they know the strain of Ukraine’s collective traumas and the impact of war more intimately than any child should. Yet in spite of this, these children dance, tell scary stories in the dark, play pretend and have fun in the orphanage. “A House Made of Splinters” is both a record of the intense emotional labor of the social workers and a testament to the strength of the children living there.
To reduce “A House Made of Splinters” to a documentary simply about the devastation of war would be an immense disservice, however. It’s impossible to watch the film and not feel immense hope: Social workers labor tirelessly to provide a safe space for these children, while the children themselves carve out their place in an ever-changing, unpredictable home. Regardless of whether their fate lies in a permanent orphanage or in the hands of biological or adopted family, the children’s morale is a sight to behold.
Yet there is an intense vulnerability all the same, one that borders on voyeuristic as the audience watches the children cycle through the turbulence of state care. Harrowing anecdotes of drunken violence, for example, are interspersed between scary stories and predictions of the future. The kids go from having fun with their friends to mourning the absence of a parent that never visits or contacts them. The weight of war and the fraying of Ukraine’s social fabric seeped into the orphanage long before the 2022 invasion — but the orphanage, despite being built of tragedy, reflects the hope of the staff and children all the same.
As all eyes remain on Ukraine, it is remarkably easy to be swept up in the relentless coverage of the immediate effects of war, from massacres or bombings to torture or rape. “A House Made of Splinters” is a heart-wrenching portrayal of the less visible impacts of war — one that many countries, not just Ukraine, know all too well — and a beacon of hope nonetheless.