Off-grid living is an attractive prospect to some, especially survivalists, libertarians and common-or-garden misanthropes. Such people’s rejection of society has inspired recent gems like Captain Fantastic and Leave No Trace, which raise difficult questions about civilisation, meaning and happiness. With Acasa, My Home, Romanian director Radu Ciorniciuc uses a cinema verite style to examine a real world example – the Enache family of the Bucharest Delta.
In establishing his subjects, Ciorniciuc’s direct cinema is joined by a smooth sense of narrative, giving his observational film a cinematic sensibility. This may lend a directorial presence on occasion, but generally it is an uncannily natural and intimate piece of documentary filmmaking, albeit one that doesn’t quite penetrate its central figure, Gica Enache.
The family of 12 lived in the delta for 20 years before the government came knocking. It was an area neglected for so long that a unique ecosystem arose, boasting 96 bird species and hundreds of plant types. Touting it as ‘the largest urban park in the EU’, the government’s plan for a tourist-friendly reserve was bad news for the Enache family. Or bad news, should I say, for Gica Enache, the patriarch who put them there.
They lived in a cramped, rag-draped shack on an island clearing, rubbish strewn across the trodden ground. Cats, dogs and pigs roamed freely, with hens, geese and pigeons to boot. There were six children to a bed, intertwined amongst a mass of duvets and pillows. Some may balk at the conditions Ciorniciuc depicts with such intimacy, but the dynamic seemed to bring happiness to the family, especially the kids, who enjoy the marshy landscape that they know so well. Many parents implore their tech-addled kids to “get some fresh air”. Well, the Enache children got plenty of that.
We see their 20-year stay come to an abrupt end when social services make their final visit. “It’s dangerous for the children”, says one official, predictably and self-righteously. The family’s elder members respond with protest and idle threats, but they know resistance is futile. Soon, the family is set up in government housing.
It is within these new walls that Gica’s character fully unravels. He is a controlling and boorish figure whose arguments hinge on vulgar threats and puerile theatrics. When social services arrive, he threatens to set himself on fire. Later, he calls his eldest son a failure. By the film’s last quarter, he’s spouting vile arrogance such as, “I’m their father, I can kill them if I want to.”
Is there anything beneath Gica’s aggressive pig-headedness? Unfortunately, we don’t know. We don’t get to understand why he started this life with Rica, his diligent yet submissive wife. He decries ‘wicked civilisation’ and speaks of having been a laboratory assistant, but we aren’t given a detailed portrait of what he’s done and what motivated him to go off-grid. Given how stupid he is in conflict, Gica may have nothing interesting to say on the matter.
Ultimately, it’s the children who elicit the real empathy. What does the future hold for them? Life in the city is certainly more dynamic. They play football, attend classes and mix with other children – even the washing machine is a source of entertainment for these kids. Yet old habits die hard. Fishing in a park lake catches the attention of the Bucharest police, who display their professionalism by jabbing one of the boys in the stomach. Then there’s the issue of prejudice and assimilation. Are their lives better outside the marshes? We can only wish them the best.