By Sharon Calingasan
Director: Alexander Nanau
A peek into the lives of Ana, Andreea and Toto leads viewers to the tenements of Bucharest, Romania. With crammed space and no running water, they struggle to survive. Left in the care of two uncles, with their mother serving time in prison, just makes things worse; they are in an environment of imminent danger and harm. Andreea, the caring sister that she is, abhors their place and frequents friends’ houses for sleepovers. Ana, the responsible eldest sister, is anxious and angry but succumbs to the activities of the people around her. Toto, the youngest sibling, is the regular kid who still finds time for play and banter in spite of their situation – that being, rut-poor and unsure of their future. But this is just a fraction of what goes on in their lives.
With the director confining themselves to the background of events and applying a purely observational style, this immersive documentary into the lives of three siblings, left to survive in the absence of their mother for a couple of years, raises a multitude of concerns. The children are exposed to drugs and heroin users and dismal living conditions; and, worst of all, basic needs like food, a decent home and a proper education are evidently not met. A neighborhood children’s club becomes a place of hope and refuge for Toto and Andreea, who are able to learn about Math, English and other basic subjects just like in a normal school. More so, the two of them get enthusiastically involved in a dance group, mentored by talented teenagers who genuinely see their potential.
While the two younger siblings develop their skills and talents, it is a downhill ride for Ana. Whereas Andreea and Toto ultimately seem in good hands after they decide to enter the orphanage, Ana refuses to “˜clean up her act’ and change for the better. Meanwhile, a chance for her to learn the skills initiated by their local neighborhood club is left unpursued because parental consent is needed.
What makes Toto and his Sisters so effective in engaging its audience is the spontaneity of the film’s actions and reactions, and the nuances of its characters – especially in the interactions of Toto with his sisters, his fellow children, his elders, his uncles and their drug-user friends, among others. One scene of Toto talking with another child shows his naughty side. The kid asks Toto about his father, to which Toto replies that he went abroad. And when the other kid proceeds to ask him his father’s name, without batting an eyelash Toto answers, ‘Cheetah’.
Another key sequence sees Ana lying in a small bed in their tenement room, with Andreea questioning her from behind the camera. Andreea is asking her why she won’t quit drugs, leave the tenement and join them in the orphanage. Ana carries an overt air of incoherence and emotionally instability; she is angry, crying and blabbering away all at once. She blames Andreea and Toto for leaving her, then asks for something to eat and even requests some shoes, but, when asked again why she won’t leave the place, she becomes more angry and hysterical.
The scene captures a realistic and no-holds barred confrontation between sister and sister, with no other people around them, and the result is an emotional and heartfelt conversation and an outpouring of emotions that deftly conveys the two opposing ideas that the film in its entirety aims to encapsulate. In trying situations like this, a person faces a choice: to change for the better or to stay in the proverbial dump and wallow in their own misery and failures. For Ana, it is clear that she is unwilling to shape up and join her other siblings. After this striking scene, she is escorted into an ambulance and brought to a hospital where she is confronted with a worst case scenario, dictating her destiny in the days to come.
Director Alexander Nanau, known for his multi-award-winning docu-film The World According to Ion B, has scored another eye-opening work of non-fiction with his latest feature. He dares to venture into Bucharest’s notorious Ferentari neighborhood and the outcome is an in-depth look into the lives of the Petre siblings. Earning the trust of the locals and the tenement occupants was essential and, from the looks of it, he succeeded, enabling him to expose both the good and the (more prominent) bad sides of their environment in a subtle and non-invasive way. Andreea’s poignant conversations with the camera in tow, depicting her interactions with friends, the people in the neighborhood club, her co-occupants in the orphanage and especially with her siblings are significant in granting viewers a front-row seat to her thoughts. Particularly charming are her on-camera interactions with Toto, expressing the close bond of brother and sister.
Intensely heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time, Toto and his Sisters is a resounding call not only for parents but for all of us to take notice and get aware to the world around us. While you sleep in your comfortable bed, while you enjoy your warm bath, while you eat your delicious meals, you may begin to wonder in the aftermath of seeing Nanau’s film just how many children out there have no decent meal or place to sleep. More so, viewers will likely ponder the long-standing problems of drugs and drug addiction, along with the plethora of consequences that come with these matters. Truly the message of this story is universal and all-encompassing. Finally, it is a film that will provoke endless questions among those who see it, and will hopefully inspire some of us to take on an active role and commit to help alleviate these pressing issues.
Toto and his Sisters is available to watch on FilmDoo.com until the 28th August 2016. See it here. (UK & Ireland only)
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