Home But Not Alone: Teodora Ana Mihai on Waiting for August

Waiting for August is Teodora Ana Mihai’s debut documentary film about a teenage girl raising six siblings alone in Romania, while their mother leaves to work in Italy for the summer. A poignant slice of cinéma vérité, the film won Best International Feature Documentary at Hot Docs and Best Documentary Film at Karlovy Vary Film Festival, amongst other laurels on this year’s circuit.

Mihai was herself born in Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania in 1981, and, like the Halmac siblings in the film, spent a parentless year in Bucharest after her parents sought political asylum in Belgium (the family was subsequently reunited in 1989). As such, Mihai’s portrayal of 15-year-old Georgiana, the family’s main caregiver, has a sweetly personal resonance, but the film never gets mawkish or sentimental. Here, Mihai explains how she won the trust of her young subjects enough to be able to capture the day-to-day truth of their adult-less lives.

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My first feature documentary, Waiting for August, is a vérité film that tells the story of seven Romanian siblings who are left to fend for themselves while their mother works abroad to provide for the family. Making the film presented me with a series of beautiful challenges, which made its realization all the more rewarding.

Treating the taboo subject of minors living alone was the first barrier, as finding a family who would agree to have me document this delicate subject matter was not a walk in the park. It took me about eight months and dozens of interviews to find the right family, whose story I wanted to follow and who also agreed to be filmed.

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I absolutely wanted to tell this story from the point of view of the children, because I find kids fascinating and because I had not yet seen economic migration told from the perspective of the ones who are left behind, though their plight is not less relevant or captivating than that of the ones leaving. After searching and searching, I met the seven Halmac siblings (whose ages ranged from five to 16) and whose mother was earning a living in Italy. I felt such empathy for these kids living alone, that I knew right away I wanted to tell their story of resilience. I loved their positive vibe, the beautiful dynamic between the brothers and sisters and the powerful yet different personalities that these kids were displaying. It was obvious to me that the interaction of all this youthful energy was going to be of great beauty to witness on screen, but the question remained: How to capture it, while preserving their pureness and authenticity?

In film school we had this running joke: we were encouraged to avoid filming boats, animals and children, to prevent ourselves lots of headaches during the shooting and editing process. Boats were bad for obvious continuity reasons: it’s quite a hassle to have a boat return to its original position for retakes. As for animals, they are notorious for doing the wrong things at the right time and vice versa.

The greatest difficulty, they said, was working with children: these uncontrollable bursts of energy, with two legs, a mouth and a strong will of their own. Good luck to the director! I loved the predicament and embraced the task. I decided that my first film was going to feature almost exclusively children. But how to enter this world of children as an adult, without disrupting their balance?

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I was setting out to tell the story of children without adult supervision, so for the credibility of the storytelling, it was imperative to adopt a technique where my adult presence (and that of my two-man crew) would seemingly disappear. For me, the camera had to become a friendly, observatory presence, that looked upon the kids with kindness, that gave them a platform, but without disrupting the course of their daily lives.

That was easier said than done. The director in me wanted the viewer to be able to witness their strength, resilience and fragility as if it were first hand. This meant that—as a crew—we had to arrive at a comfort zone where the kids would feel uninhibited, unashamed and free to be themselves when we were filming.

In order to do that, we first needed to de-mystify the camera: by explaining how it functioned, letting them feel how heavy it was, allowing them to look through the viewfinder, playing back some recordings, etc. Once that curiosity was satisfied, they felt more at ease with the camera popping up in all the corners of their rooms and their lives. If they were to be honest to the camera, the camera had to give its secrets away as well.

It was the same for myself and the crew. The kids were curious about some very personal questions relating to our lives: They wanted to know about our parents, our siblings, our partners, our work… no subject remained undiscussed. The funny part of all of this was that I had to translate most conversations as my crew didn’t speak Romanian at all. They did leave Romania learning a few dozen words and simple sentences, as was to be expected—the kids had been very good teachers. All these conversations and interactions were crucial to feel at complete ease with one another and to create that necessary level of closeness.

Even so, the siblings’ relationship to the camera visibly progresses from winter to summer as the film unfolds. In the first scene, for example, the little ones still show a slight curiosity towards the camera’s presence, but that sensation of awareness completely evaporates throughout the following scenes, simply because by then, the camera and the people behind it had become their buddies.

Now that the film is made, one of the remarks I most appreciate is that the kids come across so naturally, as if they have no awareness of the camera at all. This is a great pleasure to hear, because it is what I was hoping for, though how this was achieved is difficult to put into words. It is the magic of documentary filmmaking—that beautiful connection between filmmakers and subjects, that is created and maintained by a great amount of patience, honesty and curiosity towards the people you film. Taking the time to explain and being genuinely open, are just a few key words that give you access to a greater intimacy. As kids have very specific needs and timings, I was constantly busy measuring their needs and moods. I had to anticipate when to film and when it was opportune to play, talk, eat or watch TV together, for example.

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Stylistically I rejected the use of voice-over, captions and other widely used documentary conventions, because I felt that it would interfere with the spontaneity of the kids. I felt that observing them carefully instead, and showing the different facets of their daily lives, was the key to understanding the broader Romanian context in which the family lives, as well as their very specific story.

And this choice also allowed me to do what I like most: to play with the boundaries between fiction and documentary film and to raise questions about perception and interpretation. One effect of the seemingly absent camera that I opted for in Waiting for August is giving some viewers the sensation they’re watching a fiction film. I know of people who watched the film not knowing it was a documentary and were surprised to find out that the characters and situations were indeed real. I find this beautiful, because I have always wondered why the concept of “suspension of disbelief” is so strong that we tend to expect fiction film to look more seamless and “real” than documentary itself? MM

Waiting for August opened at the Laemmle Royal in LA on October 3, 2014, and opens October 10, 2014 at the QUAD Cinema in NYC.

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