“When encountering the societal and economic structures of everyday life, it’s not a rare dream for many to wonder what life may look like off the grid and out of the hands of a bureaucratic entity that doesn’t have your best interests in mind,” I noted in my review for Acasă, My Home, one of the essential documentaries this New Year. “For one family living in the vast water reservoir of the Bucharest Delta, they have made this their reality for the last eighteen years. The Enache family and their nine children call this abandoned area their home, sleeping in their homemade hut, fishing for food, and taking gentle care of this slice of nature directly outside the hectic Romanian capital. As outside interest in their homeland grows, Acasă, My Home director Radu Ciorniciuc captures the forces of civilization that cause an upheaval of their lives with a well-rounded eye, painting an empathetic, complex portrait of the costs of independence.”

With the film now available in Virtual Cinemas across the country, I had the opportunity to learn from Ciorniciuc about his background in investigative journalism, immersing himself with his subjects, drone photography, narrative inspirations, and more.

The Film Stage: Can you discuss your background in investigative journalism and how you believe it equipped you to make your first feature?

Radu Ciorniciuc: I started my journalistic career as a long-form nonfiction writer, being more interested in producing feature-length reportages than investigations. Back then, I was part of a radical community of young reporters, living and working in a squat in downtown Bucharest. Our dream was to produce the kinds of stories that were never financed or published by the local mainstream media: time-consuming, truly independent, multimedia reportages. It was a dying journalistic genre in my country and we fought to bring it to life. And in some ways, based on the popularity of our work, we succeeded.

But I wanted to do more than raising awareness and win awards for the stories and topics I was writing about. This is how I turned to investigative journalism, dedicating the next seven years of my life traveling the world and working––sometimes undercover––to expose abuses on migrant workers, animals, and the environment. This change in my professional career also came with a cost: working on investigations for big international media outlets and organizations killed my creative drive and pushed my emotional limits to the edge of burnout. 

I was longing for creative autonomy and a break from all the horrors I’ve been seeing for years. Acasă, My Home should’ve been my comeback to my independent reportage roots. And it turned out to be so much more than that.

When I met the main characters of my film, the Enache family, I knew that I had to learn new ways of telling a story in order to portray the things I was experiencing while filming with them. Their incredible relationship with nature, their family dynamics, their unity that was about to be challenged by the change in their lifestyle were some of the reasons that convinced me to make a feature film. The reportage I was intending to make in the beginning would only have scratched the surface of the family’s nuanced and complicated story. This is why I consider myself privileged to have met and worked with some brilliant people: Lina Vdovii, the screenwriter; Monica Lazurean Gorgan, the producer; Andrei Gorgan, the editor; and Mircea Topoleanu, the co-DoP; to name just a few that worked to transform my reportage into a proper film.

My background in journalism helped in many ways as I continued to learn and make this film, but also created some boundaries in understanding that a truth/the truth can also be humanistic, or universal rather than objective, or journalistic. Journalism made me less frightened of the people around me; this film gave me the courage and a frame to understand them better.

There’s a sense of real immersion with your subjects, eventually as if they don’t even realize you are there. How did you foster that and were there times you ever became more involved in their lives?

It’s impossible to spend so much time with someone, and share so many experiences without becoming friends. And transparency, fairness, and love should be at the core of any friendship; this is how we fostered our relationship with the family. 

We got involved in their lives from day one, but it wasn’t until they had to leave the Park that we stepped in a more concrete way. The authorities were planning to institutionalize the children and the parents would’ve become homeless as there were no palpable resources to help them integrate. The Enache’s social case was something that would’ve overwhelmed even the most advanced social care system. So we had to create one: we’ve invited numerous educators, psychologists, doctors, social assistants, humanitarian organizations and we created The Acasă Social Project. A social integration platform intended to help the Enache family become independent. 

It wasn’t easy to take the decision of stepping into their lives in such a way, but when we decided to do so, we did it in the best possible way we could and knew.

You share cinematography credit with Mircea Topoleanu. Can you talk about your approach to the look of the film and how you split up duties? The drone shot you have early on is incredible as well. When did you get that idea?

We decided to go for an observational look when it was clear to us that this is going to be a family story. We wanted to create the feeling of intimacy, of being at home. And the camera shows us the realities of the family from the perspective of a family member. A little brother being both an observer and a participant in this intimate journey. So that we could tell this story from within the family rather than about a family; to see the world through the character’s eyes. 

Mircea Topoleanu stepped into the project when it became too much for me to manage both the film and the social project. This was a delicate project and research, so his great human skills and empathy were necessary for the job. Most of the time, we would discuss the filming directions for each of the scenes and he would cover everything during our regular visits to the family. Sometimes, we would both film––with two different cameras––depending on the context. For the more intimate scenes, especially the dialogues, I would film by myself. 

The drone shot came during the pre-research interviews. The NGO responsible for the Park’s management had their office on top of the high buildings close to the delta. We looked over their window and saw the striking contrast between the greyness of the city and the vast green Park. It was such a dramatic image, and we chose to shoot it with a drone not only for the “spectacular look,” but because we felt that it will reveal an essential part of the film’s plot.

When they began to enter the city, were there ever any problems filming? During the police altercation, it looks like camera phone footage is used. Can you talk about that decision as well?

There were never any problems filming this story in terms of access, and, in many ways, that’s a problem in itself. Especially during moments where people would express their hate towards the family for being Roma. I knew that racism goes deep into our society, but never seen it from up close. 

The phone video was shot by Vali, one of the main characters of the film, while getting arrested and beaten by the police for fishing in a public park. We were extremely sad to learn about this, but also proud of him that he had the courage to film those scenes with his phone, as we always encouraged the children to document their daily lives, and especially if they were victims of abuses. In fact, that phone video shot by Vali generated millions of views on social media and was at the center of a national news scandal; it was a very good reminder of the police brutality and institutionalized racism in our country. And we had to show it in the film as racism and abuse are part of the daily lives of the Enaches and the Roma community. 

You show a complexity to your subjects here, especially as it relates to Gică as their journey progress. How important was it to you to show some of the negative emotional effects such a life can bring?

It wouldn’t have been fair to portray this story or the characters in black or white terms. A person isn’t just good or bad, as reality and truth are always nuanced. And this is just another reason that made me want to make a feature film––to have more space to show all these complexities, and contrasts, to create a deeper understanding of a seemingly simple story.

For a long time, I found it hard to relate to Gică’s patriarchal way of treating his family, his decision to isolate his children from a better life, with access to education and healthcare. And then I became a parent myself––and I understood that we’ll do anything to protect our loved ones. For Gică, as he had a very hard time adjusting after the communism fell, isolating his family was his way of protecting them. I related to that, and this is how I began to feel empathy for him––albeit, personally, I didn’t agree with many of his decisions.

Your film has earned comparisons to Captain Fantastic, Leave No Trace, The Mosquito Coast, and more. Are there any narrative films you looked to as inspiration? Or one you think would make a great double feature with Acasa, My Home?

Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen and it was one of the stories that inspired me the most. Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace is also very close to my heart and brought light while I was struggling to find my way during the making of my film.

You thankfully don’t resolve the film with any easy answers. In your opinion, what is your ideal future for this family and what can viewers learn from their experience?

I hope that there will come a time when this family––and the millions of other families in their situation––will have the freedom to live life the way they want to, and I also hope that if they want to be part of the bigger society, they would have equal access to all opportunities. 

For me, this story has always been about the loss of innocence, about becoming an adult. The point in life when it becomes clear that all choices have consequences; that anything comes with a cost. It’s one of the many unpleasant truths we have to live with. And this is why it’s important to build a space where we can feel loved, cared and accepted––a place where we come back to when life’s too much; a home. 

And I’m proud and grateful to say that the Enache family has their own home now, thanks to the efforts of so many people. Among those who support the family in their daily struggles of becoming more independent are the incredible people from UiPath Foundation, the main partner of our film.

Acasă, My Home is now playing in Virtual Cinemas.

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