Still, every detail needn’t be spelled out to feel the film’s pathos. This is an empathetic lens, one that with its respectful distance never crosses the line of mining tragedy for consumption. Rather, even among the seemingly unavoidable bleak futures awaiting some, “A House Made of Splinters” nourishes hope in an at times hopeless war.
Hla, a Buddhist clinic owner, and Ny Nyo, her apprentice, live in Rakhine, a state in the war-torn country of Myanmar. There, the state-backed ethnic cleansing of Muslims has pushed many into hiding, exile or death. “Midwives,” Hnin Ei Hlaing’s candid, visually sumptuous five-year recording of their fraught partnership, captures the bid by these two women to provide healthcare and other services to a populace barely surviving amidst a genocidal regime.
Hla and Nyo are an unlikely pairing. A dedicated, frank physician, Hla is short on bedside manner. The foul-mouth midwife, a product of her country’s divisions, often patronizes her Muslim patients, and uses racial slurs to chastise Nyo. Even so, in a country where merely treating Muslims is punishable, where neighbors report on neighbors, Hla is taking a big risk. In the face of opposition, her and her husband rebelliously continue providing healthcare to pregnant Muslim women and their children. Nyo, a young mother and wife, endures Hla’s ill-placed tough love because she desperately wants to help her own people. Nyo and her husband teach the local kids, and she hopes to establish her own clinic.
To depict the religious conflict afflicting the country, Hlaing not only follows these unshakeable midwives, she silently juxtaposes haunting landscapes of the impenetrable fog surrounding mountains with the vivid verdant stalk of the village’s idyllic paddy fields. Sometimes the poignant piano-based score accompanying lighthearted montages of children at play—ignoring the war around them—renders those sequences maudlin. But the unmistakable threats stalking this tiny village, the bombs exploding and the guns fired by local roadsides, are never minimized. Through Hla and Nyo’s grit and their unwillingness to abandon people in need, Hlaing’s “Midwives” is an inspiring celebration of these two unbreakable women.