Shot over 15 months, Alexander Nanau’s immersive documentary “Toto and His Sisters” offers a fascinating and disturbing entree into the lives of three kids in a Bucharest slum. Lensed largely at their eye level, and devoid of any visible trace of directorial participation, the film is a powerful look at siblings who might have had a chance to escape the tentacle-like grip of drugs, poverty, and a monstrous mother. It’s this fleeting possibility of hope that makes “Toto” such a deeply distressing experience, inevitably calling into question the ethical boundaries of the genre: Is intervention possible? Winner of best docu prizes in Zurich and Warsaw, the pic will make a splash at fests while generating significant, and valuable, discussion.
At Siminica Petre’s unsuccessful parole hearing, she claims her three kids are being looked after by her brothers while she’s in the clink. Having seen where her kids live, audiences already know “looked after” is a bit of an overstatement. Ana, 17; Andreea, 14; and Totonel (aka Toto), 10, are adrift in what appears to be a communal crack den, surrounded by relatives and other men who mostly spend their time shooting up. Siminica’s been in stir for four years and is scheduled for another three, which means, given the children’s environment, it’s a miracle they’ve made it this far.
The eldest, Ana, will become a hopeless case. Already doing drugs with the men around her, Ana has little sense of responsibility for her siblings and zero prospects. During the course of Nanau’s, filming she’s arrested for dealing; when she gets out, she promises her sister she’ll go straight, but soon she’s shooting up between her fingers.
Toto is a little scamp at the start, headstrong and practically inured to the squalor around him. He’s never been to a school, but finds safe refuge participating in an educational club, and he’s learned to read and write. He’s also been turned on to hip-hop dancing thanks to a dynamic instructor whose firm encouragement opens up possibilities of life outside the slum. Toto’s enthusiasm and drive give the film a much-needed injection of potential optimism.
Then there’s Andreea. The docu could easily have been called “Andreea and Her Siblings,” as her story is the most gut-wrenching. At the start, she’s spending as many nights as possible at friends’ homes, since that’s her only escape. But as Ana drifts away, Andreea realizes her sole means of survival will be if she and Toto stick together. Her time at the educational club is less successful than her brother’s — she has difficulty focusing, and is simply overwhelmed by the burden of caring for both of them – but she’s trying to hold things together.
In a powerful moment, a social worker urges her to move with Toto into an orphanage. Doing so means abandoning Ana and the only life she’s known, but Andreea realizes it’s their one chance. Using a camera she’s been given, she makes a video diary, which Nanau interpolates into his own documentary, allowing viewers to fully engage with her character. By film’s end, Siminica gets out of prison a year early; Andreea wants to stay in the orphanage with Toto, yet their mother has other ideas. It’s at this point that the small measure of hope that audiences may have gradually permitted themselves can practically be heard shattering on the cinema floor.
To Nanau’s enormous credit, he’s made viewers feel completely invested in these kids, and yet at a certain point, it’s hard not to ask whether intervention, rather than a movie camera, is what they need most. The director faced this issue before in his previous docu, “The World According to Ion B.,” when he arranged for his subject to get a rental apartment; the experiment was a failure. Lesson learned. But is there a difference between an adult, with informed (if distorted) free will, and a child ill equipped to handle the role thrust upon her? What are the limits of responsibility, and who is responsible? While it could be argued that some nonfictionf ilms have been catalysts for societal change, can such a response really take place in contemporary Romania? These are sticky questions to ask, let alone answer, and part of the importance of “Toto and His Sisters” will surely lie in the discussions generated around these issues.
In terms of filmmaking alone, the pic impresses with its uncompromising take on the form, and is a fine example of fly-on-the-wall lensing (possible largely because Nanau served as d.p.). Siminica appears to be performing for the camera, but the siblings have no need for such feints, especially Andreea, whose haunting sense of swimming against a lethal tide will leave few viewers unmoved.