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'Toto and His Sisters' Discover Community and Compassion Through Filmmaking

In Toto and His Sisters, as the children engage in the filmmaking process, as they share their lives with one another and with Nanău and with you, their possibilities loom larger than their losses.

Toto and his Sisters (Toto si surorile lui)

Director: Alexander Nanău
Cast: Hovarth Ilie Nicusor Gabriel Petre, Andreea Violeta, Ana-Maria Badulescu, Siminica Petre
Rated: NR
Studio: Strada Film
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-11-16 (The Doc Yard)
"I don't think there is such a thing as fly on the wall. Everything changes the minute I walk into a room. Even without a camera I am changing things. Even in physics we know that just observing something is changing the atomic structure of it."

-- Alexander Nanău

"Sometimes people say that I'm complaining, that I pity myself, but that's not true. I just feel the need to talk about my troubles. To talk about what I've been through." Andreea, just 15-years-old, has been through a lot. Here, she speaks to a camera set up in her bedroom, in the Ferentari ghetto in Bucharest, but she doesn't look into the lens. Unlike other kids you've seen using "diary" cameras, Andreea looks down and away while she recounts a few moments in her short life.

"When I was little," she says, I was in an orphanage and nobody cared. My mother wanted to leave me and my sister there for good." To her left, in the background, you can make out a tiny white teddy bear, on a shelf over her bed.

Brief and poignant, this scene in Toto and His Sisters not only suggests Andreea's struggles, but also her thoughtfulness, her resilience, and her typical teenage-girlness. For all the heartbreak she's endured, she worries still what "people say". That she shares her concern here, with the camera given her by Alexandre Nanău, suggests as well a comfort with the process of recording her life, an understanding of the relationship between communication and performance. As she describes herself, Andreea makes clear her participation in the documentary, which is by turns observational and collaborative, a means for Andreea, her nine-year-old brother Toto, and their older sister Ana, not only to show but also to shape their experiences.

Those experiences are difficult, to be sure. The film -- screening at the Doc Yard on 16 November, and followed by a Q&A with director Alexander Nanău, moderated by Monika Navarro, documentary filmmaker and producer for WGBH WORLD Channel -- never reduces that essential fact. Instead, it offers complication and nuance, as well as respect for the kids' ingenuity, their generosity, and their havoc.

As the film begins, the children await the release of their mother Petre from jail. Two-thirds of her way through a seven-year sentence for dealing drugs, Petre stands before a parole board you don't see. As the camera remains fixed on her face, you listen to their judgment, namely, that she hasn't yet demonstrated that she is a "different person", which is, an off-screen voice intones, the reason she's serving time. "Is this what your children deserve?" asks the voice, as Petre turns and exits through a door at the back of the frame.

In Petre's absence, her children survive. Their home is regularly visited by drug users, the camera framing them in doorways and sitting on the floor, sometimes the camea closes in on their arms as they shoot up, more often watching from across the room, as they cluster and nod, their heads rolled back and their eyes closing. More than once, Toto watches them, or does his best not to, while curled up on the couch with Andreea.

At other times, Andreea removes herself, staying with friends or neighbors, trying her best not to share space with these shadows of people. The camera doesn't follow her to these havens, but it does find her again at school, where her counselor wonders where she's been and encourages her not to leave Toto alone. Andreea hangs her head, quiet, in close-up. Her distress fills the frame: how can she take care of herself and her brother at the same time?

The film makes clear that the school offers respite, in math tutoring and counseling sessions, in dance classes and stage performances (one where Toto is especially adept, cheered by his peers and teachers). You see the kids responding, tentatively and also warmly, moved by the attention of adults, by their embraces as well as their instruction. If, in one tight frame, Andreea might worry that she's let her brother down or somehow repeated her mother's abandonment, in a next scene, she brings him in to her bedroom and they make faces for her camera, as he pokes at her lips and laughs.

The film underscores their youthful energy and hope, watching them as they make their way along sidewalks or find joy in playing in a new, white snowfall that fills the yard outside their building. Inside, the space is closer, the dim light more confining. That space is shaped by absences, not only Petre's but also Ana's, who is also sent to jail for selling drugs. When Ana is picked up, the camera follows a squad of police officers crashing the door. On her court date, the camera rides with her in a police van, watching from behind her.

These images suggest isolation and non-options. In the courtroom, you see Ana, still a teenager herself, wearing a purple track jacket, her long hair pulled into a ponytail. The camera keeps back, showing the brown wood of the benches and pews, the black robes of the lawyers and judge, the distance between Ana and the system that cannot help her. Andreea sits in the back, small in the frame, her face simultaneously hinting at her resignation and also her strength.

Late in the film, after Andreea and Toto have moved to an orphanage to wait for some kind of change in their circumstance, Ana is released and returns to their apartment. Andreea takes responsibility not only for Toto but also for the film, bringing the camera with her when she visits Ana, the frame hovering at a distance, at the doorway, while Ana rationalizes her druggy haze and rejects her sister's entreaties. "You two ran away and left me in this mess," she accuses. "I waited here and cried my eyes out." Andreea sees more clearly but can't offer a good answer, either. "We didn't leave you behind," she says.

You might see in Toto and His Sisters that all the kids feel left behind. But as they engage in this filmmaking process, as they share their lives with one another and with Nanău and with you, their possibilities loom larger than their losses. And even if they're unable to find solace with and in Petre, they discover community and compassion in art, in self-expression, in each other.


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