San Sebastian Talent: Alexander Nanau on the Hardships of ‘Toto and His Sisters’

'Toto' bows at San Sebastián

Alexander Nanau toto and his sisters

For the most ambitious project of his career, Alexander Nanau spent 15 months in a poor, disheveled neighborhood on the outskirts of Bucharest, Romania – a place not too far from where he once called home. Raised in Germany, Nanau returned to his nation of birth to film “Toto and His Sisters,” a documentary about the lives of three children, Toto, Andreea and Ana, as they await the return of their mother from prison after years spent living on their own. In the film, Nanau works in a purely observational manner, not interacting with his subjects, a process that he took interest in after filming his Emmy-award winning documentary “The World According to Ion B.” “Toto and His Sisters” world premieres at the San Sebastian Festival on Wednesday.

What was your inspiration for filming “Toto and His Sisters” in such an observational manner?

When I decided to do this film, I knew I would like to risk more in terms of not doing anything than, let’s say, a normal documentary is made like: Interviews, voiceover. I had this idea in mind of being highly focused shooting the life of these kids – the life of doing nothing, actually – and getting it formally into a shape that really communicates with the viewer without having the documentary in between. With normal docs you have the presence of the documentarian in between you as a viewer and the characters. Here, I really wanted to test the limits and become invisible for the viewer so you really interact with the characters.

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How did the community initially react to your presence and how did you handle it?

People were upset. People in that area always feel that if you bring a camera and you want to film them, you want to show them on TV, because they are exposed in a negative way. The thing is, it depends on what you see as a problem. The rats are bigger than cats in that area, but that’s not a problem for me. In the beginning, we hired a bodyguard company that was waiting for me a bit far away with a telephone and ready to get me out if something happens. But I had such a good relationship with everybody inside the ghetto that I realized it might be annoying. They trusted me, I trusted them. So one night when a bodyguard said he was scared to death because a rat ran over his foot, I said, ‘I feel safe now, you can go home.’ After two weeks I went there without any protection, without anything.

Were there any strikingly difficult moments of working with these children as independent, young subjects?

I had this idea that I would like to have something from them that is maybe more powerful than what I can achieve, and therefore I wanted to give them cameras that they could use to shoot their own footage. I gathered children in this educational club that they were going to during the film, and I decided to make a film class and train more kids with cameras. Andreea, the middle-aged sister, seemed quite talented, so I gave her a camera and trusted her very much. She started producing footage and using it as a kind of diary. The most striking moment was when she came back with this incredible scene after she and her brother develop differently than the older sister, and she went to the older sister, finding her out of the ghetto, and they had this incredible discussion about why one is trying to change and the other is not. Suddenly we had this central piece, and the talent is amazing. It’s in the film, it’s the longest scene in the film.

Despite your film’s subject, do you think your piece is one that can be universally understood?

It should be. I hope it is universal in the fact that it talks about a private story, but it is not only about a particular, private life story. It stands for a lot of different stories and not only about stories of poor people that grow up miserable. For me, there are a lot of scenes within the film that do not relate specifically to marginalized people. It’s about brotherhood, it’s about love, it’s about the role of parents, it’s about individuality and what you do with your life when your family’s life turns in another direction than you think you would like to go.

Do you have a dream project in mind that you hope to work on in the future?

No, not yet, I am too young to have a dream project. For sure, I have stories that I would like to tell, and I have even fiction scripts that I am working on. But I have no clue what the next thing will be that I will push forward. It was a very long process with this film, and I would like to get it out there. Then I will think about the next piece.