Of the 238 feature documentaries to qualify for Oscar consideration this year, two of the most acclaimed contenders come from Romania—an impressive achievement for the Eastern European nation.
Collective, Romania’s official Oscar entry for Best International Film, has won more than 20 prizes to date and this week was named one of the top five foreign language films of the year by the National Board of Review. Acasa, My Home, directed by Radu Ciorniciuc, has been similarly lauded, winning awards at film festivals around the world and a nomination for the IDA Documentary Awards in Los Angeles.
To Ciorniciuc, the success of Romanian documentaries constitutes a dramatic turn of events.
“Two decades ago the [Romanian] film industry was dead, and documentary was something that was only used for propaganda,” Ciorniciuc notes. “And now every year we have a title that goes further and further outside the borders, creating so many important discussions and debates, and getting a lot of recognition. So, of course I’m proud.”
Acasa, My Home has dazzled audiences with its incredible story of the Enache family—a mother, father and their nine kids—who live “wild and free” in an abandoned reservoir plunked within the capital city of Bucharest. It’s a place with a remarkable history.
“People living around this hole—this is what it was called locally, is the hole in the middle of the city—would throw their garbage on the dam. The place was, or became, quite inaccessible to people,” the director tells Deadline. “There were all sorts of ugly, urban legends that people get killed, or raped, or there are wild dogs, and so on, which meant that nature had a lot of space and quietness to take over for the last 30 years, creating this amazing ecosystem.”
The Enache children essentially lived a feral existence, catching fish in the lake with their bare hands, and scampering into the brush whenever social service agents would show up to check on them. The family home—a rude, makeshift dwelling without heat or running water.
“When I saw them sleeping in a hut altogether, all nine in one bed, then obviously it made me feel sad,” Ciorniciuc recalls. “And it made me want to understand, how could our city, our society, offer them a better living, considering their upbringing?”
The documentary boasts one of the most psychologically complex characters in recent cinema—the family patriarch, Gica. By turns he’s domineering and needy, bombastic and tearful, deeply attached to his children and yet adamant about separating them from what most people would consider basic necessities.
“I moved here,” Gica says in the film, “because I hated this wicked civilization.”
Ciorniciuc sees Gica as a wounded man.
“He comes from a very good family. I would say upper middle class…He was good in school and everything, but he had quite a dark side in his younger years,” Ciorniciuc explains. “He did something crazy, and ended up in prison for a few months. Pretending to be a bad boy in a prison in the ’90s in Romania, Eastern Europe—you’ve seen images of the orphanages, imagine how the prison was. When he got out, he got out really, really traumatized.”
Gica took off for the reservoir with his wife and eldest daughter, and his family grew and grew in the expanse of urban wilderness.
“Gica managed to find this little Island, and he just settled there,” Ciorniciuc recounts. “He didn’t need anything else.”
The family lived off the land somehow, and the father scraped together a bit of money by serving as a guide to visitors.
“He was the local fixer for scientists or for journalists that would come and write about the place, or promote the area. So, informally he was paid, and he was part of the team,” the filmmaker notes. “This is how he was still tolerated to live there, because he was also protecting the place. He was useful for this new group of people that wanted to make this place protected.”
When authorities moved to turn the old reservoir into a nature park for public use, the family’s days in their Edenic setting were numbered. The film explores the tumult as the Enaches were moved into an apartment, over the fierce resistance of both parents.
The kids were enrolled in school for the first time, but had an extraordinary amount of catching up to do. They had never learned to read or write; Gica preferred to keep them ignorant.
“I think that was part of his toxicity,” Ciorniciuc notes. “Being the only person in the family who knew how to read or write granted him this position of others being dependent on him, I guess.”
The eldest son, Vali, adjusted to city life and started his own family. But his younger brother Rica yearned to get back home in the wild.
“[Rica] wanted his childhood, basically, back,” Ciorniciuc concludes. “Because when he got out into the city, he needed to start working, he needed to go to school. There were all these new responsibilities that came like that. He wasn’t prepared for that, so obviously it was really hard for him.”
Vali got to travel all the way from Bucharest to Park City, Utah last January for the film’s world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
“He cried a lot of times during the [premiere], and he didn’t expect to receive so much love from the public,” the director remembers. “At one point he said, ‘Seeing this film made me realize how proud I am, because now I have my own family. I have a lot of friends in the city. I have a job, where I get respect for the things that I know.’”
Gica, the pater familias, died recently. The cause was complications from diabetes, although he may have succumbed as much from a broken heart.
“[Gica] obviously wanted to go back [to the reservoir],” Ciorniciuc says. “This whole city thing kill[ed] him.”
Before he died, Gica and the whole family got to see Acasa, at a screening on the grounds of their old home in the nature preserve.
“[Gica] was quite sensitive about his own image, and thankfully everyone was happy about [the film],” Ciorniciuc tells Deadline. “It had a sort of therapeutic effect on the family.”
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