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Seven underage siblings in Romania try to get by while their single mother is working in faraway Italy to provide them with a better future in Waiting for August, the feature documentary debut of Antwerp-based Romanian director Teodora Ana Mihai. Scheduled to play L.A. and New York in early October, this winner of both best international feature at Hot Docs and the documentary competition at the Karlovy Vary fest is a low-key verite charmer that will appeal to middlebrow audiences. Future festival stops include London and the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam.
The Halmacs live in the midsized city of Bacau, about a four-hour drive north of Bucharest, on the top floor of a nondescript housing block. After a rather enigmatic opening sequence, which shows the view from a car on a snow-covered road at night, the film proper kicks off inside the apartment, which isn’t super small but nonetheless feels cramped because seven siblings live there under one roof. Most of the film occurs within the confines of the family home — a couple of outings are featured in the summer — a protective cocoon as much as a place where the siblings can eat, sleep and have minor arguments.
The oldest of the Halmacs is Ionut, who’s 17, but the leader of the pack is Georgiana, who turns 15 over the course of the film. It seems — a lot of the film’s details are rather vague — that she’s been appointed the substitute mother for this brood, getting people out of bed in the morning, cooking, cleaning and looking after her much smaller siblings, while also trying to stay on top of her own homework. It’s clear from the start that she takes her tasks very seriously.
In what feels like an almost staged early moment, practically the entire clan is conveniently introduced when their mother, Liliana, calls from Torino, Italy, where she works, and she asks Georgiana to pass the phone to the others, one by one, from young to old. It’s the depth of winter and Liliana won’t be back until summer (hence the title), though she’s occasionally in touch via phone and Skype and also sends the kids packages and money. When exactly she left and how frequently she’s in touch is somewhat hazy, as the passage of time is only suggested through the changing seasons, and the film starts when the mother’s already gone (perhaps in that car from the opening scene, since no one else is old enough to drive?).
Also rather convenient is the scene in which one of the boys has a homework assignment that involves answering 30 questions about his mother, though thankfully Mihai doesn’t dwell on the answers too much, instead using the scene to show how everyone in the family turns to Georgiana for all their questions and needs. Any kind of father, or adult, figure is conspicuous only by its absence; an old and sick woman, who lives nearby and is supposed to help out, appears about halfway through and is only seen once.
Despite this lack of adult supervision or help, this understated, fly-on-the-wall-style documentary doesn’t feature any major dramas or tribulations, which is refreshing but also means that the film is somewhat limp in terms of narrative tension, as the kids simply get on with their lives and all seem to have accepted that Mom’s just not there. Over the course of the perhaps eight or so months they are alone, Ionut doesn’t do much else besides playing computer games and Georgiana manages to feed everyone and provide the rest of what the children need. If there’s one tragedy, it is the absence of time for Georgiana’s own childhood, though this is more implied than actually shown and seems to become less of an issue as the weather heats up and girlfriends pop up left and right to take her to the fairground or the swimming pool. An early scene in which one of her little brothers decides to turn on the waterworks to see if he can manage to be invited along is about as dramatic as things get. Throughout, Mihai’s approach is so hands-off and non-intrusive (when kids start playing with knives or wires you wish she’d intervene) that much of the actual drama remains buried just underneath the surface.
In the end, Waiting for August is less the portrait of a family — at 88 minutes the film is too short to give each of the seven siblings more than a cursory glance — than the story of how Georgiana manages to accomplish the difficult task before her, which she does with a lot of naivete but enough will power and personality to compensate for her supposed lack of experience. Something similar can be said of Mihai, whose parents fled abroad during the Ceausescu regime, leaving her behind in Romania, and who manages to make a nonfiction film that’s filled with beginners’ mistakes but nonetheless gets the job done.
Production companies: Clin d’oeil Films, A Private View
Director: Teodora Ana Mihai
Producers: Hanne Phlypo, Antoine Vermeersch
Co-producers: Dries Phlypo, Jean-Claude Van Rijckeghem
Director of photography: Joachim Philippe, Mihnea Popescu
Editor: Michele Hubinon
Music: Karim Baggili, Ada Milea
Sales: Rise and Shine World Sales
No rating, 88 minutes
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