Toto and His Sisters’, the title of the new documentary from Alexandre Nanau, is, as titles go, unremarkable and innocuous enough. Likewise the Emmy Award-winning director, in the promotional text accompanying it, merely promises “the astonishing family story of Toto (10) his sisters Ana (17) and Andreea (15)”.
Neither of these things prepares you in any way for the harrowing and sometimes horrific fly-on-the-wall documentary we get of a much-maligned and hidden section of society: the poorest and most beleaguered Roma of Bucharest – a story leavened with occasional instances of self-affirmation, humanity and redemption. This ‘astonishing family story’ turns out to be a euphemism for how three children negotiate survival against a dangerous, irresponsible and seemingly indifferent adult world, living on the margins of society and off the whim of a drug-peddling relative: not in Dickensian London, not in a far-off Third-World country, but in 21st century Europe.
As the film opens, we’re introduced to the family. The eponymous Toto appears and he continues to be the focus in many scenes. He’s cute and lovable in the mischievous way boys his age can be, and shines in the film. We’re entertained by his body popping in hip-hop class where his mentors attest – correctly – to his talent, continuously encouraging him. But reality jolts us in our seats when, not far into the documentary, we see Toto, all of ten years old, trying to get some sleep on a school-night, while four or five adults – in the same room – inject themselves with heroin. This is one of many scenes where there’s a moment of suspended reality: you have to remind yourself this isn’t fiction, but someone’s life. Your stomach churns and your heart misses a beat.
Despite Toto’s top-billing in the title, it’s his sister Andreea who emerges as the star of the documentary. Andreea is wise beyond her 15 years: with her mother in jail, and only two feckless uncles – both heroin addicts – to provide support, she’s the caring, no-nonsense decision-maker for her siblings, denied the luxury of indulging in middle-child syndrome. Andreea’s had adulthood thrust upon her and she bears it with dignity. She also has a video camera thrust into her hands by Nanau, and with his support, in her video-diary, handles that well too. We see her getting profound with her playful brother – she will later persuade him to escape the family home into an orphanage with her – and giving her self-pitying sister Ana some home truths: that she must sort out herself, her squalid surroundings and her drug-addicted life, in that order. Ana with her customary self-absorption responds by blaming the rest of the world and her sister for her woes. Her story makes a strong counterpoint to her siblings’ lives, providing the drama and tragedy in the film: she’s already injecting drugs with the others and is arrested for selling them too.
It would be tempting for a British audience to wonder why, as an EU country, Romania is in this state – or why indeed it was allowed to join the EU in the first place. But we should remember too that Andreea and Ana, two vulnerable teenage girls on the margins of society, could just as easily be the Rochdale girls in the UK sex-grooming scandal. Or that the Bucharest slum streets Toto plays in could be those on the outskirts of Paris. This isn’t a film about country but about poverty, exclusion and social class.
In the midst of the at-times-overwhelming criminality and squalor there’s occasionally humanity and love too. Social and racial barriers are breached to form unlikely alliances and deep friendships. We see one of Andreea’s teachers telling her to shape up and confront her life, before hugging and kissing her and telling Andreea she’s there to support her. We see Andrea and Toto make positive choices and have a fleeting hope for their future.
As we struggle not to be overwhelmed by the feeling of complicity in the plight of Toto, Ana and Andreea, a disturbing question forms: Why did the lives of these three vulnerable children have to be put on screen to make us aware of how low humanity can get? This is the first of many questions the film raises and subsequent ones will only bring a heavier burden.
Toto and His Sisters was screened on 21st June 2015 as part of this year’s Open City Docs Festival in Bloomsbury, London. It received the festival’s Grand Jury Award later that day.