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Looking beyond the borders

The Distant Barking of Dogs / The Deminer
Danish The Distant Barking of Dogs depicts a ten-year-old boy growing up on the frontline of Ukraine, while Swedish The Deminer is about a mine-raiser in IS-ravaged Iraq. 


This month (Jan / Feb), eight films compete for the Dragon Award for best Nordic documentary during the Gothenburg Film Festival. Three of them are Norwegian: Golden Dawn Girls, where director Håvard Bustnes follows three women with central positions in the right-wing Greek party Gyllent Daggry, Sofia Haugan's personal documentary Røverdatter about her relationship with her criminal father and Letters, which is a cinematic exchange of letters between Norwegian filmmaker Marte Vold and her South Korean colleague Jero Yun.

However, competition from our neighboring countries is strong. Unpatriotically, we will focus here on two of these other titles, which even saw awards at the important documentary film festival in Amsterdam (IDFA) in November last year.

Childhood in war zone. The Distant Barking of Dogs won the prize in the First Appearance competition in Amsterdam. This documentary is about ten-year-old Oleg, who lives in a small town in the Donetsk region east of Ukraine. Although the First Appearance program is for debutants in the long format, Danish Simon Lereng Wilmont has previously made two shorter documentaries about children of the same age – then focusing on sports environments. IN The Distant Barking of Dogs he wanted to portray what it is like to be a child in a war zone.

Basically, there could have been any war. The director has stated that he chose Ukraine for his own security since the conflict there is more or less the form of a trench war. But it certainly wasn't safe to film the young protagonist, who lives with his grandmother just a few hundred meters from the front line – in the middle of the line of fire for the grenades fired between the Ukrainian soldiers and the pro-Russian separatists.

We never hear of Oleg's father, while his mother – whose grave the son regularly visits – died a few years ago. Many understandably have moved from the war-torn village, but Oleg's grandmother opposes the idea: If they leave, they have nothing. Here they have at least one home.

Director Simon Lereng Wilmont is able to add a surprising amount of poetry to an initially bleak film.

Recognizable. Despite the fact that the war and the hits are constantly threatening in the background (the film's title plays on the recurring sound of shots and grenades in the not-too-distant focus) The Distant Barking of Dogs on recognizable aspects of being a child, and the dynamics between children of different ages. Along with his younger cousin Yarik and the older comrade Kostya, Oleg does much of what boys tend to spend time with – such as shooting with jumpers and swimming in the lake. But they also collect cartridge cases, follow intensely the news stories about the conflict – and in a particularly unpleasant sequence, Kostya introduces a real gun to shoot the boys.

Oleg is too young to take in the full seriousness of the war that surrounds him, but it is nevertheless clear that he regularly fights against his own fears – which he prefers not to admit. There is also no doubt that circumstances have forced the young boy to mature early.

Fly on the wall. The director has filmed Oleg and his grandmother for a year and a half, and with his consistent observational approach he comes impressively close to the characters. This is probably also because Lereng Wilmont did not bring any film crew, but was in charge of the footage alone. In addition, with breathtaking images and a look for evocative visual details, he is able to add a surprising amount of poetry to an initially bleak film. Not least, this applies to the sequence where Oleg – who here admits that he is scared – joins Kostya in a bath while the sun is setting and the explosions are pouring over the evening sky.

Mining clearer in Iraq. Explosions are also there The Deminer. The film is about Fakhir Berwari, a Kurdish colonel in the Iraqi army who is working to disarm mines in the heavily war-torn country.

The first part of the film is largely based on his own video footage of these life-threatening missions from the time after Saddam Hussein's fall. "It's like an action movie, just real," says Fakhir's son Abdulla after watching the footage, which his father kept hidden from the family. True: The intense intensity at times The Deminer can bring to mind Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar winner T, but is thus a documentary. Only equipped with a pocket knife and a simple cutting pliers, Fakhir works tirelessly to harm the many and extremely deadly mines, while a cautious step on a hidden wire can be fatal.

Damaged in explosion. An almost inevitable explosion causes Fakhir to lose a leg, which means that the army no longer wants him to work. However, this does not stop the bitten miner, who some time later starts working for the Kurdish Peshmarga forces to disarm the insane amounts of explosives IS has left in the area inside and outside Mosul. Here are bombs on roadsides, in cars and not least in civilian houses that people now want to move back to. The homemade bombs are usually controlled by cell phones instead of timers – they detonate if the phone rings.

Despite the fact that the war is constantly threatening in the background, the focus is on it recognizable aspects of being a child.

Much of this material was filmed by co-director Kamal and is of a higher technical quality than the older recordings. But here, too, are nerve-wracking footage made by Fakhir's closest associates, who are also at risk of losing their lives if one of the bombs goes off while documenting the work.

Heroic obsession. The Deminer is a fascinating portrait of a man who almost insists on risking his life (even when other soldiers ask him to be more careful) because he knows that the work he does will save many others' lives. The effort is very heroic, at the same time bombardment seems like an obsession to him. The precarious work takes precedence over everything, including his own family – without the impression that the protagonist lacks love for one's loved ones.

The film participated in the main competition in Amsterdam (together with the aforementioned Golden Dawn Girls), and was awarded with the jury's special prize – the "second prize". The Deminer has certain similarities to the Norwegian film Nowhere to Hide, which won the main prize at the same festival the year before, and which also gives a disturbing insight into the chaotic situation in Iraq.

All in all, these films point to a clear trend: Nordic documentary does not just focus on the Nordic countries.

Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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