Sundance 2020 Interview: Radu Ciorniciuc on a Family That Comes Out of the Wilderness in “Acasa, My Home”

In the opening frames of “Acasa, My Home,” children from the Enache family can be seen paddling around a lake and grabbing at geese, piling on top of each other as soon as they get out of the water. It could be mistaken for a scene out of “Lord of the Flies” when one of the boys yelps, “Livin’ tough and partyin’ loud,” but there are parents just down the way, though they are happy enough to leave well enough alone as their choice to live alongside the river in an uninhabited area in Văcărești, Bucharest is an extension of its patriarch’s desire for the kids to grow up without any influence. Naturally, when some of the nine kids under the Enaches’ watch chase a wild hog around, filmmaker Radu Ciorniciuc felt he had to get right in the mud with them.

“Even though I lived in the city all my life, I could see these scenes in the back of my apartment building,” says Ciorniciuc, who is just old enough to have seen his home country on both sides of the Romanian Revolution of 1989. “It wasn’t so shocking honestly, but it was really intense.”

Likely to inspire comparisons to “Captain Fantastic” and “Leave No Trace,” Ciorniciuc’s nonfiction debut feature follows a family that is pulled back into society after separating themselves from it, a particularly complex situation when the Enaches’ settlement on the Bucharest Delta gives them unique insight into all the species endemic to the environment. The local government takes an interest in creating an urban biodiversity trail on the land, but to do so will mean that the Enaches will have to move to the city, and under the constant threat of social services taking away the kids, the relationship with local authorities is fraught with distrust to begin with. Eventually, the family is moved to a flat and through the family’s eldest son Vali, who begins to think for himself as he matures, Ciorniciuc is able to show the pull he feels by both his family and the larger culture and the parts of the world he’ll never be able to entirely belong to in isolating himself to one side or another.

Elegantly unfolding over the course of three years, “Acasa, My Home” tells of an unconventional family, but one whose dilemmas will look familiar as one generation decides to what to take from the previous one and what to leave behind, and shortly after the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Ciorniciuc spoke about how he found the compelling story, pushing past limits he experienced as an investigative journalist when making a feature film and how the film has already helped ease the Enaches’ transition to living in the city with all its attendant costs.

How did this come about?

I’m an investigative journalist and I live in Bucharest, so when I heard that the state is going to give a preservation status to this old landfill that the Virgin forests in Transylvania have, it was quite amazing. I went there to do a reportage with Lina Vdovii, my partner and the writer of the project to see how they’re going to transform this land and we vaguely knew about the family living there because the father saved three children from a burning house in 2012, so he became a local media star. [Once we got there] I met some of the kids [who] running through the reeds — their skin was sunburned and their hair were all messy, and I’m like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, what’s going on here?” Because of what I was seeing — their relationship with nature and how they interacted [with the environment] my reportage shifted naturally into a feature length film because the reportage is quite limited when it comes to expressing deeper things, what I was seeing and feeling, so this is how we decided to make a film.

Were you learning on the job since this was your first film?

Yeah, I started as a longform nonfiction writer, so I had an eye for a interesting human stories and then I shifted to investigative journalism because I felt the need to do a bit more with my skills. I started working as an investigative reporter for television [programs] all over Europe, so I had some filmmaking skills — I had my own equipment that I bought with the money I would save from these jobs and my dream for at least five to six years of working abroad was to make a film of my own and to be a bit more creative. When you’re doing investigative journalist for major TV stations, your film is checked by 12 lawyers and then editors, so it was meaningful, but the creative challenges weren’t necessarily there. I would go undercover in factories when I was 20, or on farms and expose the modern day slavery and I would see some amazing scenes there, human and very powerful and I couldn’t make those part of the stories I was publishing, so this frustration grew in me.

There’s a remarkable drone shot that accompanies the opening title card of the film, allowing one to see the relationship between the park and the city. Was that distance something you were always conscious of?

When I got there, I started doing interviews with local authorities and I got to meet the guys that were lobbying for the place to get the preservation status for four years. They had the office at the top of one of those five buildings [in the city] that you see throughout the film, so when I saw the dam, it was like a clear cut between this natural reservation now and the tense ex-communist architectural city, and I thought we need to find a way to show this. I’m not necessarily a fan of a drones or artificial ways of filmmaking. In the ‘90s, we didn’t have any filmmakers because until then there were no journalism schools or cinematography schools, there were only propaganda schools, so filmmakers would actually tell the stories of how great Ceausescu was, and in the ’90s after the revolution, everything was so fresh, you would have [people] with cameras trying to tell stories without having any education, so this [cinematic technique] is something that Romanian filmmaking lost through all the years, like a voice that faded out and [in general] this [film is] quite raw. It doesn’t have any music until the end, so this [shot] is quite a statement.

As time moved on, were you keeping an eye out for certain activities that the kids did while in both the urban and natural environments?

Not until I saw them happening, actually. It came quite naturally, the whole documenting process. When I saw the kids swimming in the river in the city, it just blew my mind. Climbing trees or eating fruits from public trees or even fishing — these are the things that they were doing in the park and they couldn’t do it [easily] necessarily in the city, but still they found a way, so I thought it would be really interesting to use this as a way to show that there’s a big part of them that the city can’t break their relationship with nature and that’s what fascinated me when I met them, their really harmonious relationship with their environment and with themselves.

Did anything change your ideas about the film you were making?

I started with this reportage idea about the park and it was quite interesting journalistically [of] how the state would handle the park and also what is the family going to do after they moved. But there was like at least half-a-year when I was a bit broken after [the family] moved into the city. I was reviewing the footage after the filming days and there was something changing about [the family]. There was a magic that surrounded them until then that was fading away. They suddenly became poor and at first I thought, okay, we’re going to only film like for a couple of months in the city or even finish the film with them leaving the park, but then I said, “Okay, we need to see what happens next.”

That intuition was quite strong and it was related to their relationships because suddenly they were pressured by a lot of other things and this constant stress was reflected in the way they were dealing with each other. Shifting to the city, modern society tells you, okay you need to be independent and you need to man up, so this is why I chose to focus on Vali [the oldest son] and his relationship to his father because as a result of all these pressures, Vali becomes his own man, but that unity that you see in the park, [which is] a result of living in a harsh environment, [where] they need to stick together to survive, [was disappearing].

I understand there’s a multimedia project that’s accompanying this. How did that grow out of this?

It came as a need. At one point, we were developing the social project where we were trying to see if there’s a way of building a method for social integration designed for this family, which has quite unconventional problems, so we mapped out all the social services and NGOs in the city and state, and then create this mediation platform and try to bring them closer to the family so they would have a less dramatic transition to this new lifestyle [in the city]. Until then, we were working with psychologists, doctors, educators, social assistants, and some of them were actually doing full-time work and we needed to pay them somehow.

We are also photographers and we gave the kids analog cameras to take photos of their journey from the nature to the city, and we didn’t know necessarily what to do with [the photos], we thought it was just a really cool idea because we were always having cameras with us, but some of these photos were pretty amazing and we made the book [from] them and it was a success, so with the money we could pay for the people working on the social project. [With] some of that money, we also managed to buy the family a house and a piece of land last year, so the multimedia project helped a lot, and it’s multimedia because it’s this book and also an augmented reality app that you can use with your phone [where] you point your phone on some of the pictures, and then you see a bit from the film, so it’s an extra narrative layer that’s a really great hook for the kids to actually read the books.

What’s it been like to come to Sundance?

I still don’t know yet. I’m still in shock. I need at least a year to grasp it. [laughs] I never would’ve thought that we would go so far with a simple, straightforward story of a family in Eastern Europe, so it’s a huge thing to be selected here, especially because it’s my first film. I still think that I have so much to learn, yet thinking about how much we’ve worked and how many people put their time and passion into it, with all modesty, it’s a well-deserved beginning for this project and I’m really happy to be a part of this.

“Acasa, My Home” will be streaming through DOC NYC from November 11th through 19th. It will be released by Kino Lorber in January.

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