The Romanian documentary film Toto and His Sisters was this year's Grand Jury award winner of the Open City Documentary Festival. The British Council's Darya Bassel from the jury panel read out a quasi-poetic statement that at least captured some of the film key words: Toto, Romanian siblings and orphanages. The new wave Romanian film productions, whether documentary or fiction, are of such consistent quality in the execution of visual storytelling that could not be discounted from international cinema.
Benefitting from access to confined restricted places such as the prison, law tribunal, young care shelter, and school club, the director Alexander Nanau traces the formative developmental journey of Toto and his sisters. The film featuring on the festival poster, is such a visually rich and suspense deep story one forgets it is a real documentary and not a blockbuster which is a characteristic of Romanian cinema the fleeting use of contemporary reality and protagonists' dramas.
Why is this film an award material? In his Q&A, the director explained how the project started from an NGO brief but steered away from a vested interest agenda. It is the micro focus on life aspects capturing detailed experiential gestures that give the film the edge. It is not a race issue film, if that's what they aimed in the outset to highlight, it did not achieve that at all. On the contrary, the film is excellent because it avoids racial implications. In all shown evidence, it is an uplifting story of empowerment not burdened with the race concept. There are contributory participants that all along provide help, strength, support, advice, care and shelter out of little that they have with no evidence of race bullying, discrimination, persecution, or unfair treatment. The informal help outside the system from ordinary people who welcome Toto and sisters to sleep in their homes, staying over in their absence, even knowing they come from such an endemic drug addictive dysfunctional environment, or the father of Toto's school mate, not a wealthy family, who fills in two equal plates of fresh soup placed on a low table for the two boys to eat on return from school, or the man who readily offers to take one of the protagonist sisters to a training school to learn a skill, and crosses town on foot with her in tow, carrying his own kid on his back to get in time to register her on a course, or the school club teachers who coach them with incredible patience, strength, advice and stubborn empowerment to do better so that they put in more than they take out- are all inspirational acts of generosity that may not happen elsewhere outside Romania; despite gaps in social care, there are informal relationships that compensate the losses.
Emblematic are the scenes in the school club and the modern bespoke care shelter presented by one of the teachers 'not as an orphanage' (that would have had a traumatic effect as the kids refused to go to one), but a 'place to sleep when not in the school club'. The kids starting to learn literacy and basic instincts practising emotions with their faces and bodies in the dancing lessons and later in their diary recordings showing to control their body kinesics impersonating human reactions and multitudes of modes of feelings which, exposed to the abject idle family in the drug despondent home, they would not learn.
This is a story of personal individual responsibility, accountability and a state system that, imperfect as all systems are, contrary to all criticism and its faults, appears to want to cope with a hard reality: the police combating a rampant drug culture as a growing societal evil, a prison institution that looks human next to a careless woman who is better off inside than outside, with parasitical tantrums of the family uncles, young, body able in prime time of their life grotesquely idle on drugs transforming the kids' house into a toxic palpable grim location showing no efforts towards reality integration.
With not an optimistic ending as one would have hoped, even if Toto and his other sister break out as winners away from this environment, it is the runaway of one of the sisters back into criminality; her lies, her refusal to get into the discipline of literacy and skill training because 'this is her life and does what she wants' leaving the state to pick up the tab for her HIV infection and her imprisonment perpetuating her own mother's behaviour and carrying into the future what they all did in her family before her.
The film brings a story with a potential fallout into stereotypical politics and subliminal NGOs slogans but it maintains the focus on human nature, behavioural character formation and education: if there is will, there is power.