Apr 20, 2015

Alexander Nanau's "Toto and His Sisters"

Andreea and Toto in Toto and His Sisters (Image courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival)
The Tribeca Film Festival always screens a broad range of documentaries, and this year is no exception. I saw as many as time allowed, and interviewed two documentary filmmakers (see Film Journal International’s “Screener” blog) whose work may or may not get released in theaters. A third, Alexander Nanau, is a filmmaker I did not have time to speak with, but his documentary, Toto and His Sisters, about a Roma family, is a documentary I wanted to write about. It will screen at the festival on April 24th.

One art house distributor I spoke with at Tribeca complained that Toto and His Sisters had a  “downward trajectory.” Another declared that “everyone” knew about Romania’s discriminatory polices against the Roma. Neither statement is true. There have been other excellent documentaries and narrative films on the subject, but Nanau’s is both a skillfully rendered piece of journalism, and a documentary in which we see the world through the eyes of children. As in print journalism, documentary is shaped by the views of the journalist, although the subject matter surfaces through interviews—and, as it does in every cinematic genre, through the filmmaker’s close attention to what may be articulated through camera placement and editing.

The children in Toto and His Sisters are 10 year-old Toto, 14 year-old Andreea and 17 year-old Ana. Nanau's documentary opens with the girls cleaning their one-room apartment in Bucharest in anticipation of their mother’s early release from jail, but her plea is denied, and she is sent back to prison. Soon, it is evening and the children’s uncle arrives with four other men; he is charged with caring for his nieces and nephew, but he and all the other men are heroin addicts. The children’s mother had been an addict and a dealer, and Ana, despite her efforts to remain clean, is also an addict. At some point, Andreea, who often escapes in the evenings to sleep at a friend’s apartment, decides she must move away, for her own good and that of her brother. She and Toto return to school, but it is not easy for her to leave Ana behind.

Shot over a fourteen month period, Nanau depicts Andreea and Toto’s visits to jail to see their mother, the children’s lives at home and in school, and Toto’s hip-hop dance class, as well as the obstacles Andreea faces when she first seeks help from authorities. The entire documentary remains focused on the children. Nanau even adds footage Andreea shot, perhaps with her cellphone. The sensitivity with which he approaches his subjects is so perfectly balanced with his documentarian’s eye that the viewer is immediately immersed in the children’s lives, yet also continually aware of the circumstances that work against them—the often judgmental attitudes of adults, their uncle's indifference, and their mother's emotional dependence on them. Nanau balances this with scenes of the “tough love” of the dance instructor toward Toto, and the kindness of a teacher who immediately agrees to help Ana enter a job training program.

Most impressive of all is Nanau’s depiction of Andreea’s tremulous first steps toward rebellion, her older sister’s dominance at first striking both fear and guilt in her. The filmmaker goes on to capture a difficult moment at school as Andreea learns to read, and another at the jail when she angrily replies to her mother’s questions about their lack of sleep. Andreea blames her for leaving them to their uncle and his heroin addicted friends. Slowly and skillfully, Nanau charts Andreea’s momentous decision to extract herself and Toto from that life. While the filmmaker also tells the upbeat story of Toto’s resolute pursuit of success as a dancer, and the terrible fate that awaits Ana, it is Andreea’s extraordinary courage that is, ironically, the documentary’s most sublime articulation of the children’s vulnerability.

Toto and His Sisters illustrates the tremendous injuries sustained by children who live in abusive families, and who are victims of poverty and institutionalized racism. Nanau’s subjects happen to live in Bucharest, but their counterparts are to be found in many other Westernized countries, including America. While the documentary is critical of Romanian authorities, it also depicts the efforts of individuals who are genuinely devoted to helping disenfranchised children. In the end, it is also about Nanau whose insight shaped the story, and whose compassion makes it a work of art.