Toto lives with his two sisters in a slum in Romania, their mother is in jail, and their home is frequented by a band of junkies. I sat down with Alexander Nanau to discuss his approach to his beautiful documentary drama and the effects an observer has on its subject.

NFS: I am somebody who's very interested in that space between fiction and nonfiction and I see a film like this and I think: how the hell do you make this?

Alexander Nanau: From the very beginning when I was looking for a story in this marginalized area, I wanted to do a story about kids completely from their perspective, excluding adults. In order to achieve storytelling where the viewer can really identify 100% with the characters, I knew I had to push the limits of observation and really adjust everything from the camera work to the way that I can disappear as a filmmaker for the viewer.

When I was in film school I was very impressed with Salesman. That was for me the starting point —  normal people being bigger than life. I wanted to push it a bit further so that you really don't feel the filmmaker as somebody in between you and the subject. I was very lucky to find these characters because they are really very strong and have really big personalities. I was also very lucky because they accepted me and the people around them understood what I was going to do.

Toto and His Sisters

NFS: How did you approach the camera work to further disappear as a filmmaker?

Alexander: In many documentaries the camera is chasing the action, so that means you always feel that there's somebody reacting. In that moment you feel there's a filmmaker. In that moment you take a step back emotionally. So I really had to adjust the way I synchronized myself and the camera with the action so that you don't feel that somebody is a step behind the action. In order to get to this intimacy, I had a very small team. So in the ghetto, for example, in the room sometimes I was alone and had just mics on them and recorded in a backpack.

Everything changes the minute I walk into a room. Even without a camera I am changing things.

NFS: Do you think that what you are talking about is a byproduct of people being more used to watching films now? And the notion that there is a filmmaker is more prevalent in people's minds?

Alexander: I don't feel that I have to be there in the film in order to be truthful. I think the viewers are really clever enough to know surely somebody is doing the film. You have to be present as a filmmaker because that makes it authentic -- that doesn't violate the line about what is fly on the wall or not. I don't think there is such a thing as fly on the wall. Everything changes the minute I walk into a room. Even without a camera I am changing things. Even in physics we know that just observing something is changing the atomic structure of it.

Toto and Andrea on a train

NFS: What a fascinating challenge that gives to a filmmaker when you think about it that way. When your presence, even if it is just one person, changes your subjects.

Alexander: This film could not have been done the same way by another documentary filmmaker because his film would have been the result of his relationship to these people and his presence in these people's lives — so I think it's completely personal storytelling. Albert Maysles put it really well, he said, "There is no such thing as fly on the wall, it's always about my relationship to the subject."

Every day you get out of the car and just film what you feel you have to film.

NFS: How did you explain your approach to your subjects?

Alexander: I just explained very briefly that what I wanted to achieve was just to observe their lives, so they should just live their lives and do whatever they normally do, and just forget about me. To a good extent it worked. For example, with all the people in the house shooting up, I had, let's say, one day of talking to them during filming and building up a relationship. Then from the moment they trusted that I was not somebody who would do them harm or show the footage to the police or anything, they were very lax and wanted to support this, and they just did their thing. 

Toto and His Sisters, Romanian Poverty

NFS: How long was the process and what parts, if any, did you manipulate or change, or set up?

Alexander: We looked for our characters for about three months, then we shot over a period of fourteen to fifteen months in different time portions. The editing was quite long, one and a half years. It takes a long time to get this 100% authentic form that has its own rhythm and becomes a world in which you can dive into as a viewer.

When I set out to make the film -- actually -- what I was hoping for was that the mother would be released and it would be a film about a mother restarting a new life with her kids after five years. But then it happened that they would not release the mother and so the story changed completely. During shooting — although you always try to anticipate things — I ended up not being able to redo anything, so at a certain point I just proposed to myself, "Okay, every day you get out of the car and just film what you feel you have to film."

So the only things that were organized are things like I asked them: "Do you sometimes visit your mother?" And they said "I don't know, one year ago." So I said, "Maybe you should visit her again."

You can't expect the actor to be perfect in the role if you don't know how to access the different layers of his personality. It's the same thing in documentary.

NFS: The choice to give the characters their own cameras added another layer to the approach. How did you get that idea?

Alexander: I watched several documentaries in which cameras were given to the characters. But in all the films I saw I discovered that something is not good enough. It was always the characters playing around with the cameras, it was just a toy. So I thought in order to achieve something really powerful and very sharp, I decided to do a workshop. So, for three months I did a film workshop. I started to talk with them about stories, to show them films. Then I would ask them to write stories — most of them were illiterate — but they could draw. Then we watched, for example, short films by Abbas Kiarostami and analyzed them. I just wanted to make them aware of story — of what film can do.

Then we would edit the footage that we shot and I would show them. Then I gave them cameras and taught them how to use them, to not pan around or to flip and flop them, just to really focus on things. The thing that I could not influence and I was never dreaming of was the big talent that was shown in Andreea. What she did with the camera was just incredible. 

Toto and Andrea

NFS: That's a beautiful influence and a beautiful relationship to have with a subject where you feel like you're giving them something. You are giving them a reason to show up.

Alexander: It's like working with actors, you really have to invest and put yourself in this relationship in order to get the best performance. You can't expect the actor to be perfect in the role if you don't know how to access the different layers of their personality. It's the same thing in documentary. Because I worked a lot in theater, I think that's where I learned it actually, not in film school. Because there you have time to watch people. You have time to see how they tick, how they function, and in theater when you sit there and watch rehearsals you start to get a sense of what people will do the next second. That was important, for example, for my camera work because I could anticipate a second before what would happen so I didn't need to rush and run after the action.

Thanks, Alexander!