While “Acasa, My Home” continues to travel the festival circuit – a journey that has included it winning the cinematography award at Sundance, and screening this week at El Gouna in Egypt – and recently secured distribution in North America, its Romanian director Radu Ciorniciuc is hard at work on his next film, “Tata.” Co-directed with “Acasa’s” screenwriter and his partner, Lina Vdovii, it will focus on modern-day slavery.
“It’s about a father who is basically living and working in modern-day slavery conditions,” Ciorniciuc tells Variety. “He was violent to his daughter when she was young and now they meet. She is a journalist and she wants to confront him in Italy, where he works, coming from Moldova. She learns he has been [in this nightmarish situation of modern-day slavery] for the last two decades, and her investigation gives them a platform to explore their broken bond. So once again, it’s a family story,” he says about the project he has been filming for two years now, supported by HBO Europe, which also backed “Acasa, My Home.” Ciorniciuc will also reunite with “Acasa, My Home” producer Monica Lãzurean-Gorgan.
While admitting to slowly “sliding towards fiction,” it will be another personal documentary for Ciorniciuc. “Not only the characters in the film are close family, but it’s an important story for our generation – I don’t think I have one childhood friend that didn’t have a family member working abroad. Family relations have changed in ways that we are still trying to comprehend,” he says.
“Tata,” set to be released in two years, will also show the ambiguity of the problem, enabling further exploitation. “All the elements of slavery, including physical violence, racism and poor living conditions are there, which makes the reality of our characters quite distressing. Some of it is very in-your-face, often involving legal action, and some is more subtle. Just think about all these workers picking our fruit, working 18 hours a day without getting paid for overtime, without having a break. There is a lot of vulnerability in these communities.”
Ciorniciuc, for whom “Acasa, My Home” marked a feature debut, admits to being taken aback by the positive reception of the story about a Roma family forced to abandon their life in the wilderness of the Bucharest Delta once the authorities decide to turn it into a nature park. Especially in his home country, where, he says, “racism runs very deep.” Just like everywhere else in the world.
“I think it was because of the honesty with which we approached it,” he says. “All families have good days and bad days, and they learn to overcome challenges, big and small. Through love and through care, and through love again, everything is possible. For me, it’s a human story, even though we tackle some sensitive issues present in our society. It’s the humanity in the film that makes it accessible.”
He decided to show two sides to the story, crediting his editor Andrei Gorgan and editing consultant Joelle Alexis with reaching such a “delicate balance.” “The Enache family has a unique bond with nature, but the conditions they were living in were very harsh. I have recently become a father, and it would be inconceivable for me to think that my daughter wouldn’t have access to doctors or school, or any basic care,” he says, while calling the family’s beloved place a discovery for him as well. “There were all these urban legends about it, about people who got killed there or wild dogs running around. All the good things, as well as the bad, were shot with an open heart.”
Coming off a career as an investigative journalist, Ciorniciuc quickly embraced filmmaking. “I moved into investigations, because I had this feeling I wasn’t doing enough,” he says. “In 2014, I published a reportage that was the biggest of my career and still the lives of the people I was writing about didn’t change. I was taking jobs in factories all over Europe, working undercover, but I was rooting for creative freedom.”
After some years he managed to save enough money to buy proper equipment and started to work on a story that “would be his own,” but the feeling of “not doing enough” persisted. Leading him to set up a social project which, in time, scored some powerful allies, including Ethan Hawke, who described “Acasa” as something that would happen “if Terrence Malick went to Bucharest.”
“Ethan Hawke joined our campaign of raising money for children living in poverty and helping them with their education,” explains Ciorniciuc. “At one point during filming, Rica, one of the main characters, came to us and said: ‘Look guys, soon I will leave this place and look for work, and I am afraid I won’t be able to come back because I can’t read the signs.’ That’s when we started.”
Calling for volunteers, they gathered specialists from doctors to teachers and did an “inventory” of all the problems the family faced. “We created a mediation platform, you could say. For the first time, I understood all the nuances of trying to help families living in poverty. You have to give them enough space and freedom to make their own decisions.” They also published a book in order to finance the work, with the photographs made by the children during their first year of transition, ultimately raising enough money to buy them a piece of land and a house. Sadly, not everyone could adapt to the change, with the family patriarch passing away barely two weeks ago.
“He was uprooted and this new life in the city was just too hard for him. We are all in shock,” says Ciorniciuc. “It’s not in the film, but the first time he entered his new flat, he spent the whole night outside on the porch. We found him in the morning, under a blanket, in front of the house. He said he couldn’t breathe.”