Welcome to Lysychansk. The Hundred Thousand City in Eastern Ukraine, which was founded at the beginning of the 18th century as one of the first on the Donbass. When Danish director Simon Lereng Wilmont was filming the documentary House of Chips, he was still forty kilometers from the front line that has divided eastern Ukraine since the outbreak of the Donbass war in 2014. The situation is deteriorating from now on.
The film shows how struggles and difficult social situations affect the most vulnerable: children. It was on display at the One World Human Rights Documentary Film Festival, which returned to its original form this year after the previous two years of online coronavirus pandemics. On Thursday, the jury evaluated The House of Chips as the best film.
In fact, the “House of Chips” is an institution in Lysyčansko, where children taken from families by social workers are placed for a temporary period. He usually stays there for a few months before deciding what to do with it. Whether they go to an orphanage or a foster family, or whether one of their parents still has a chance.
The authors themselves do not speak in the film, there is no accompanying commentary. Only educators and children speak.
Most of them are children of parents who have fallen into alcohol, have no work and are unable to take care of the family. Some children have witnessed domestic violence. In the film, for example, one boy tells another how his father regularly came home drunk and always tried to provoke violent conflict. But once he stabbed the boy’s mother in the chest.
When he returned from prison after five years, he knelt down in front of her and asked her forgiveness. “When she forgave him, he bought a cake and champagne and got terribly drunk the first night,” the boy says.
A hard life made worse by war
Eastern Ukraine is one of the regions that the end of the communist era and the demise of the Soviet Union caught up with the unprepared era. Many local factories and businesses have disappeared due to their inability to compete, and young people have moved to other places in Ukraine or abroad for better opportunities.
The road leading from the west of the country to Lysyčany is of poor quality and full of potholes. One of the local officials once joked that it makes no sense to invest in repairs, because not many people have a car here.
One of the educators at the institute (referred to in the film as the boarding school) says: “Life here has always been difficult, the war has made it even more difficult. Many people have lost their jobs, many families are broken or incomplete.”
Little Eva loves tossing one perfect star after another down a long hallway. The camera then captures her as she calls her grandmother. “Is mom drinking? he asks. “I haven’t seen her,” we hear on the other end of the line. “I called her, but she’s not taking it. So she’s probably still drinking,” Eva replies.
His mother comes to see one of the boys. “Mom, you reek of alcohol,” he tells her as they embrace.
The film ends with the normal activities of the director of the institute. He picks up the phone in his office and answers the question if they have a place to accept another child from a troubled family.
Bombs fall on the city
The plans for House of Chips are all the sadder when the viewer realizes what Lysychansk and Ukraine are going through right now.
After the film was made and before its presentation at the One World festival, Russian aggression against Ukraine began. The Russians in the east of the country moved the front, which is now near Lysychansk.
The Russian army has repeatedly shelled the city and, according to Moscow, the Russians want to incorporate Lysychansk into the so-called Lugansk People’s Republic. One of two breakaway republics that Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to recognize in February, just before the start of the invasion. In front of the children who appeared in the film in the “boarding school” in Lysyčany, there is not a very happy future.
A global festival 2022
This year, the theme of the 24th One World International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival is The Path to Freedom. “It draws attention to the places where things are happening that shake the world of human rights and wants to remind us how fragile freedom and democracy are,” say the organizers. This year, the festival offers 80 documentaries and six films in virtual reality. There are also films of international renown, presented in prestigious foreign festivals. The festival, in cooperation with the Documentary Film Institute, will also support Ukrainian filmmakers with specially added screenings. The full program of the One World festival here.