Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Nov 04, 2020 11:04 am 
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An idyllic but illegal life in the wild is derailed

In journalist Radu Ciorniciuc's well-received debut documentary feature, a Roma family, father, mother and their nine children (mostly boys) is forced to abandon a carefree life in the wilderness/swamp of the Delta Văcărești (astonishingly, right next to Romania's two-million-plus capital city of Bucharest) once the authorities decide to turn the whole area into a nature park. This is by now a familiar story, and we have several recent film variations. We naturally think of Matt Ross's Captain Fantastic (2016) and Debra Granik's Leave No Trace (2018) and this time we also, especially, should look back at Crystal Moselle: The Wolfpack (2015).

As one learns not from this film, which avoids commentary, but from Ioana Moldovan, "A Life of One’s Own: My Home," published recently in Romania-Insider, it all started when Gică Enache, the dad here, lost his job at a factory in the 1990s, ended up in prison after getting into a fight, and then went away for a while to live in the delta. (He's still a drinker, and he acknowledges that he smokes too much.) Moldovan tells us Enache built a "proper house" in the delta, "with a garden and animals," and later "decided to stay," sticking by that even after later "slipping into acute poverty."

By the time we see the family, which he must have amassed recently, they live in a shack built of cloth draped over a delicate wood frame. The early and most celebrated and what Ciorniciuc at first thought should be the only part of the film focuses on the boys' life in this swamp where they swim and catch fish (which they eat or sell) or birds (which they keep or play with) and depicting this, the director's camera is, in Moldovan's words, "wonderfully fluid."

It may be foolish of me not to have realized at first this was a Roma (gypsy) family; the mother's style of dress may give that away. But no one seemed to mention it until I came across the word somewhere. Moldovan writes that this identity "adds to the danger" of the family's "being shown as 'the other,'" and she notes the film mostly avoid that but "even they cannot resist" providing "sun-soaked shots" of the "scantily clad, barefoot" boys "catching fish with their mouths and roaming the canals." She thinks while that's fine (even if it's romanticizing), it may take away from a deeper examination of whether any project to live freely off the grid is ever possible and if so, under what conditions, and so on.

Quite true, no doubt. And we have to be content with the sensuality and spirit of the "wonderfully fluid" early moments. Things turn bad after that, and Ciorniciuc sticks with it, never losing his remarkable access to the family and whatever's happening to them. Notably, the authorities know Gică and are on a first name basis with him; after all, he's been there for three decades, and however idyllic a natural preserve this is, it's awfully close to Bucarest. Ciorniciuc uses a satellite pan to show the closeness of city and nature area. The parents are hiding the kids, though, and when they all get wind that social services is coming, the boys run off and hide in the reeds till nightfall. At first there's talk of making Gică's presence officially sanctioned. The main guide acknowledges that Gică knows the species there better than anybody; so do the kids. But bureaucracy, whose intricacies we don't see, has quite other plans.

So here's how this story differs from the films mentioned earlier. Unlike the family of Captain Fantastic, which is in a remote region, and the father-daughter team of Leave No Trace (the latter gets caught and resettled in a house like Gică's; we experience the pain of this), this one is less remote and not totally hiding. It's a little like the family of Wolfpack, whose seamlessly-united sequence of six boys the close-together male siblings here reminded me of - except the kids here are so numerous and so largely undifferentiated I kept trying, in vain, to count them in any given scene. What's very different is that while Gică's kids are learning a lot about local nature and how to live off it, as do the boys in Captain Fantastic,, the latter kids are also being impressively home-schooled, provided with in-depth cultural literacy.

Gică's boys, when they're sent to school - which we see, and a scene of four of them of widely varying sizes all in the same classroom being roll-called is an eye-opener and a sign of the director's continuing access in the new urban environment - turn out to be not only uncultured but illiterate, and not even able to count from one to five. The signs are clear that Gică was neglectful, as if his constant lying around and swearing weren't clear signs of that. The fact that he and his wife are passionately dedicated to their brood isn't enough.

Probably, in all cases, the kids who grow up in such environments reach a point when, however intoxicating the intimacy among themselves and with nature - or, in the case of The Wolfpack, with their pursuit of creative activities and immersion in their vast film library, they've had enough and want to be part of the world and of society. One might remember Running on Empty, where River Phoenix's character has to abandon his beloved political fugitive parents and brother because he's too gifted not to attend a musical conservatory; it would be criminal not to. The daughter in Leave No Trace has to admit she can't sneak back to the wild as her father wants to. The Wolfpack provides a different, and rather unique, situation. They've not been living in the "wild" but in a crummy public housing apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan which their father won't let them leave. But they have a remarkable rapport with each other and their involvement in film becomes a serious vicarious involvement in New York, and the world. When they all in varying degrees break out, they're surprisingly well prepared. They are a filmmaking team, and also studiously stylish and good at public speaking, ready to accept their Oscar, or, at least, Best Documentary at Sundance and a well-attended Q&A at Lincoln Center.

It's obvious when Gică and his family are sent to the city and put in a house that it's not going to work. They are surrounded by people whose racist hatred of Roma people is intense, and the family lives up to their negative expectations. Being without a clue how to maintain an orderly, clean household, they're banished to more primitive public housing, lacking even electricity. The poverty was bad enough in the delta, but here it's worse. The eldest boy, Vali, goes to live with a 15-year-old girl he gets pregnant. Again, there is access: we see him beg her to get an abortion: she won't. He and his father start fighting. These kids are on the wrong side of the law, and they have no qualifications or motivation. It's a contrast to the Wolfpack or Captain Fantastic siblings. They do retain their smiles, at least the younger ones do.

I'm not sure Ciorniciuc erred in not going deeper. I think he went as deep as the situation allowed. We have to appreciate this film for its dynamic picture of the family and its courage in sticking with it even when things become dramatically different and go sour. There should be a follow-up. It will be very far from the paradisal water-babies and running tribe in the film's "wonderfully fluid" and prize-winning cinematography, glimpsed for one brief sad nostalgic moment at the end. The director, astonished at getting into Sundance, seems headed toward a bright future, and also has been raising money to help the family.

Acusă, My Home, 86 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2020, where it won the world documentary cinematography award, showing at over a dozen other festivals in Cluj, Prague, Munich, Cartagena, and other locations, screened for this review in connection with DOC NYC (Nov. 11-19, 2020).

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