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NEW YORK—Romanian director Alexander Nanau’s young son Jacob, jet-lagged, had fallen asleep at a New York coffee shop near the Tribeca Film Festival. Nanau gently woke him: Time to go. People to meet. Screenings to host.
Nanau had spent 15 months filming a boy slightly older than his son in one of the worst neighborhoods in Bucharest for his documentary film, Toto and His Sisters. Toto had its U.S. premiere at Tribeca, although Nanau has been on the road for six months at other festivals where the documentary has won award after award. It garnered best documentary in Zurich and Warsaw, among others.
Toto was one of two Romanian films at the swanky Tribeca festival, where the attendees are beautiful and the Vitaminwater is free. The other Romanian film, Aferim!, was a feature film whose director Radu Jude, won the Silver Bear for directing at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival this year. (Jude has a fear of flying and didn’t make it to Tribeca.) Toto has recently gained distribution in French and Italian cinemas, a huge accomplishment for a documentary. Aferim! also has distribution deals in Europe.
For the last decade Romanian films have consistently won top prizes at film festivals around the world. In a country that escaped perhaps the stiffest repression in the Soviet bloc, the small industry has blossomed. In 2013, Child’s Pose won the Golden Bear at Berlin, the top prize. Other critically acclaimed films paved the way with prizes at Cannes and elsewhere in the previous decade, like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) and 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006). Nanau’s first documentary, The World According to Ion B, won an international Emmy in 2010.
“Because there is freedom, there are good films,” said Nanau. He said Romanian filmmakers are free from both government control and the big corporations that dictate artistic direction in larger markets.
After the fall of communism in 1989, foreign film companies began projects in the affordable Romania, putting many of the current Romanian talent to work. Ada Solomon, one of the producers of Aferim! who was at the Tribeca festival, worked for foreign film companies in Romania post-communism before starting her own production company, HiFilm, 10 years ago. Her company has backed several big festival successes.
These Romanian directors have spent most of their lives out from under communism: Nanau is 36 and Jude is 38. The industry is tightly knit. In between screenings at the festival Solomon and Nanau visited the Museum of Modern Art together. The technical talent that worked on Aferim!—the director of photography, the editor, the set designer, and the first assistant director—has worked together for a decade. The friendships bring a unity of vision and, Solomon says, diffuse conflicts that could delay production and increase costs.
‘Because there is freedom, there are good films.’—Nanau
Festival prize-winning films can be unapproachable for regular audiences, but both Romanian films at Tribeca have a relevance to American culture. Though set in different eras, both center on the Roma, the minority group long marginalized in Romanian society. Roma (or “gypsies”) were slaves in Romania until the mid-19th century and continue to be a subclass today.
Set in 1835, Aferim! is a black-and-white drama that has the feel of a Western. A constable and his son are searching the Romanian countryside on horseback for a runaway Roma slave. The constable’s incessant comedic banter is drawn almost entirely from Romanian literature and creates a detailed portrait of a cruel era. At one point the constable affably explains to the captured slave, slung over his horse, that this is much better than the days when masters would shoot Roma slaves for sport. Solomon said the film is a counter to the historical propaganda films under communism with nationalistic heroes.
“Aferim! is a no heroes film,” she said. But it’s also honest about problems in Romanian society that are deeper than communism. “There are things that were not functioning far earlier.”
Realism is a characteristic of the new Romanian cinema. Unlike directors of many films at festivals now, both Jude and Nanau insist they are not interested in making political statements, but showing the human condition.
“In [Jude’s] kind of cinema everything stems from the basis, the core of the body, the cell—the family,” said Solomon.
Family relationships are central in Nanau’s film as well. Toto and His Sisters is like a Romanian episode of the HBO series The Wire. The drugs, family decay, racial divides (in this case between Romanians and Romas), are all familiar. Nanau never interviews anyone in the film or flashes information and statistics, so it is an entirely immersive experience like a feature film.
He thinks the style of most American documentaries is “horrible.” “They always sound the same,” he said. Documentaries should be more “cinematic,” he said.
The film follows the effervescent 10-year-old Toto, a Roma, growing up without parents in a tiny apartment with his two teenage sisters Ana and Andreea, where drug-dealing uncles and heroin junkies regularly invade. Nanau knew the Roma head of a neighborhood nonprofit who arranged a meeting with the drug-dealing uncles to assure them that he was “cool.”
Romanians sometimes talk about Romas as if they are animals, said Nanau, so he needed to bridge the racial divide in order to film. “It’s an area that no one sets foot in, no journalists, no cameras,” Nanau said. “But the people are good people, I was never afraid of them.”
Nanau filmed by himself in the apartment, with an assistant bringing him fresh batteries and memory cards as needed, because as he explained, no one else would fit in the room. The access he gains into these children’s lives is breathtaking. He watches Toto fall asleep as junkies shoot up around him, goes to Ana’s court hearings after she is arrested and to Toto’s dance competition. He’s there when Andreea learns what the word “word” means at a neighborhood nonprofit teaching Roma children.
Nanau taught a film and storytelling class to children including Andreea at the nonprofit, which became a central part of the children’s lives. He incorporates footage Andreea took with a camera herself. One of the most heartbreaking scenes is Andreea’s footage: She confronts her rail-thin sister Ana about her drug use and tries to convince her to move to a children’s shelter with her and Toto. Andreea mentions the running water at the children’s shelter.
“I don’t need to be washed by anybody,” Ana barks back.
“Because it’s filmed by Andreea the whole energy is towards the camera,” Nanau explained. “You experience it firsthand. It’s a bit like virtual reality.”
Foreign arthouse films often have the problem of being too dark for American audiences. But I wanted to watch Toto again as soon as it ended. Still, some American critics described Toto as dark.
“How much more optimistic can you be?” Nanau shrugged. “What should happen? Should they win Jeopardy? I don’t know.”
In the film industry context, making and shopping a documentary is particularly hard work. Nanau invested his own money into Toto and had to pitch other producers around the world as he was shooting in the Bucharest ghetto for 15 months. He pieced together funds from different organizations, and HBO Europe eventually backed the project.
Solomon’s production company HiFilm was the chief financial backer for Aferim!, with its extremely low budget of $1.5 million, but she also gathered funding from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and the European Union. Even a Romanian real estate investor, who is also an art collector, put a small investment into the film. Now the filmmakers wait to see whether they pass the test at Tribeca and reach an American audience.
Nanau will be traveling to other major film festivals over the next months with Toto and hoping to pick up more distributors. Jude is already working on his next feature film. Solomon is hoping the filmmakers can recoup some of their investment to put into the next film. “After the success of Aferim!, it’s easier to finance [the next film], but not easy-easy,” she said with a smile before going down the steps to greet potential distributors coming to the film’s next screening.
—These films aren’t available in the United States yet.