Paradise Lost: filmmaker Radu Ciornicic discusses Acasă, My Home

January 29, 2021
Radu Ciorniciuc’s award winning documentary Acasă, My Home opens with boys stalking a cygnet through water ways and reeded embankments. Later, under dappled light, they fill plastic bottles from a stream. They spend their days looking for frogs and making fishing rods.

The tranquility of their bucolic lives are interrupted only by periodic visits from social services. Then, the nine children flee into the foliage and hide in a secluded hut until darkness falls. They worry that if they’re caught, they’ll be sent to an orphanage and fed “hundred-year old potatoes.” They wait for their eldest brother, Vali, to get word from their father. When it is deemed safe, the little ones return to their derelict shack where they all pile into one bed for the night.

The beginning of Ciorniciuc’s documentary is set in Bucharest’s Văcărești wetlands. To protect the capital city from flooding, Romania’s last Communist leader, Nicolae Ceaușescu, had planned to build a reservoir in the wild wetlands. But after the fall of Communism over 30 years ago, the project ground to a halt and the area fell into disuse.

Gică Enaches, his wife Niculina and their children subsisted in the wetlands for over 18 years, making some money from fish caught and sold by Vali. But when the area is designated a protected natural park for city dwellers, the Enaches family is compelled to leave. Their house is dismantled with axes and the rubble removed by bulldozers. The Roma family are then rehoused in a government apartment in Bucharest.

While Gică had once worked as a laboratory assistant, the wetlands is the only world his children have ever known. In Bucharest, the Enaches children get haircuts. Each is given his or her own bed with bedding. They are fascinated by appliances they’ve never seen, like washing machines, and confused when they are told to follow unimaginable rules, like the need to separate garbage. At school, they struggle to integrate and in the streets they are subjected to racist taunts.

Vali begins working in the park where he once lived. He helps to build a biodiversity trail for mountain bikers, and he boats along the waterways, picking up garbage. He soon has a girlfriend and begins to drift from the family unit. His father meanwhile, begins to dream of returning to the delta with his family and rebuilding a home there.

Having premiered at the Sundance Film Festival (where it won the best cinematography award), Acasa, My Home has been screened at several other film festivals and open-air events and is now getting Oscar buzz.

In this exclusive interview, Radu Ciorniciuc discusses not only the origins of the film and his editing choices, but also why he believes in the writing process when making a documentary film and how he started to take dramaturgy seriously in order to become a better storyteller.

I’d like to start at the beginning. You are a long form investigative journalist, focusing on human rights, animal welfare and environmental issues. This is your first documentary film. What made you decide you wanted to make the crossover to documentary filmmaking now, and why did you decide to make this the topic of your first film?

“There were a number of reasons for this choice. First of all, we considered that this story had none of the elements of an exotic story that would fit perfectly on the front page of a tabloid in Europe. We wanted to understand a bit more about the context in which these people were living. I started as a long form non-fiction writer. After years of investigations, I wanted to go back to my roots creatively. I wanted some creative independence, some autonomy, some authorship. So, I was prepared for everything. When I was in my 20s, I used to save money to buy equipment. I was quite ready to make a film. I didn’t know what the film would be about. So, in starting to film the family, especially with the children, I became more and more confident that all of my experience, both professional and personal, up and until then, was a good fit in the sense that I was ready to tell the story in a way that involved a lot more work than I was used to. In journalism, you don’t have the luxury of spending so much time and resources on a story because you’re dealing with emergencies all the time. I’m so happy that I went for it.”

Radu Ciornicic

Can you recall when you first heard about or met Gică, Niculina and their nine children? And what initially made you decide that you wanted to make a documentary on their lives?

“I met them in 2016. The writer of the film, Lina Vdovii, and myself went there to make a reportage [story] about how the government was planning on giving this very high environmental protection status to a landfill, an abandoned place close to the middle of the city, making it the biggest urban national park in Europe. For me, it was a huge story because I was living two streets away from there. At first, we were interested to see how they were planning to change this place that was rather dangerous and [where] nobody would go. During our first days of doing interviews, we met two of the boys who took us to their father, Gică. And that’s when we learned that Gică was actually working informally with the campaigners that were making [the area] into a national park. Basically, he was their fixer. He was working with scientists that had come to study the place. He was working with other journalists. So, we were lucky enough to have the doors opened from Day One.

“We decided to make this film after we spent a few days with the children. It became clearer to us that this was something that couldn’t be contained with the instruments that we have as reporters. Reportage is quite a tight genre. It became clear that we needed new tools to show the things that we were feeling and experiencing while filming with these children: their relationship to Nature, the relationships between themselves, the things that were about to happen like their evacuation… These kids had never had running water or documents, so it was pretty clear that something big was about to happen in their lives. And although they were not necessarily aware of — or in the case of the father — willing to accept this major change that was about to come, we felt that it was important to follow it.

“We were also interested to see how the social dimension of this transformation of the park would be handled by both campaigners and authorities. Things changed in the meantime because we got involved a lot. We built a social project and we worked with a lot of professionals like social workers, psychologists, doctors, educators, and so on. We did things the right way in terms of the family’s integration into the city.”

Making a documentary can be like running a marathon. It takes time and commitment to your subject. The process is intimate and can be energy-sapping. But you’ve said: “There is no Objectivity in filmmaking, as there is no Truth in journalism. There are only individuals and these tiny loopholes [through which] we perceive the world.” However, did you ever wonder during the years of making this film: “Am I getting too close? If I make friends with my subjects will it help or hinder me in telling their story?”

“Becoming friends and spending so much time with [your subjects], I think, it’s inevitable. Some decisions, you’re making based on your professional filter, of course. But many of the decisions I took in making this film were based on my human ethics and human morals… of course, there was a huge debate within our team when we decided to get involved — to [ensure] the children not end up in one of those horrible grey Communist style shelters in Bucharest or for the mother or father to become homeless. No film could have been more important than their wellbeing. The film took a turn in the sense that for some years we also followed our humanitarian involvement in the family’s life. This didn’t make it into the film, but it was something that became pretty big in the constellation of the project.”

Roma make up around 3.5% of population in Romania. Prejudice against Roma in Romania and throughout Europe, especially Eastern Europe is common. This is a hot button issue. Amnesty International and Romani rights groups blame widespread institutionalised racism and persecution. The film touches on the politics of exclusion and the difficulties this family faces when forced to integrate into urban Bucharest as they navigate the social welfare system. How did you decide how much weight or screen time to devote to highlighting the racism faced by the family and the Romani in general?

“We were very surprised by how deep racism runs into our communities and our society’s roots. Moments in the film that show racism are like 1% of the [racist] things that were happening on a daily basis with regard to this family’s life. From day one, when [the boys] tried to play football with the other kids on the streets, the other kids’ parents would shout at them: “Go back inside! You’re not allowed to…” And this was the smallest thing. There were things happening every day. Some of the Enaches children didn’t even know they’re Romani until they moved into the city. The father didn’t necessarily have this identity of a Roma person. This is why we didn’t want to make a Roma film… Somehow, we felt that everyone knows and understands that racism is big. But we were surprised to see how close it [became] during the making of this film — which obviously influenced the edit and the scenes that we chose. We felt it was important to show the racism [toward] the family, as it was a huge part of their reality.”

I particularly admire your decision not to include narration, a flashy soundtrack or obtrusive interviews. Instead, you rely on editing skills and wonderful cinematography to guide the audience. Was the decision not to include interviews, narration, or detailed captions decided at the beginning of the filmmaking process or later on?  Did you know from the beginning how you intended to construct the film or was it more of an organic process?

“It was quite organic. It was quite intuitive as well. In the beginning, we did the interviews for quite a while, and then this idea of choosing the form that would give more space to our characters to show reality through their own eyes came [about]. This is how we chose this observational [format]. I was quite open to having a voiceover, for example. I even started writing with one of the children some versions of a voiceover. But at one point, I understood that the material that we had and the way that it was produced didn’t need extra ‘pushes,’ both in terms of the content and the information that the film delivers. Adding music was [something] we wanted at one point. I understood that we can actually make a statement. Because of the way this film was [made], it doesn’t need any underlining. We kept it simple and it actually works. Because it was, in essence, a simple story. The family’s lifestyle was simple and natural and fluid. Like Nature. And Nature doesn’t need music to be beautiful or dangerous or whatever. It is what it is.”

You were with the family for many years. What made you decide that you had all the material that you needed to complete the film?

“We filmed with the family for almost four years. That’s a really good question, because if you would’ve asked me in my third year of filming, I wouldn’t have had any answers. This is why I believe in the writing process of making a film, even a documentary film. I understood that this film would be finished when what we’ve put on paper matches our cuts, and our intentions are visible and shown to match our edit. It wasn’t an easy process. During these years, we gathered hundreds of hours of footage. There were a lot of possible [ways] to tell this story. There were a lot of things to balance. From Day One, this story was very nuanced — and it would have been very easy to miss [something] because there were so many nuances. We started rewriting and rewriting. We made things clear [among] ourselves what we wanted to say with this story. This is how I found an ending for the film. This is how I chose to focus on the relationship between the oldest son, Vali, and his father. And this is how I started to take dramaturgy seriously, which was a major step forward for me as a storyteller.”

Would you consider a follow-up to this film? Perhaps several years from now, in the vein perhaps of Michael Apted’s Up series that started in 1964 with Seven Up!?

“That is something that I’d be open to but probably seven years from now would be a great place to start doing an Episode 2 to this story because I think it will take us [seven years] to finish the next two projects we are working on. After these two — and if we survive, mentally and physically — then absolutely! Even now, I keep in touch with the family. I sometimes want to take my camera and film Vali. He’s traveling to Germany right now. He just got a job [there]. I’m very interested in modern-day slavery in Germany and I have a strong feeling he’s going to be confronted with some of the issues that I’ve been researching for many years. Again, that can be a film in itself.”


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