Elusive beauty in gloomy fates: Spartacus & Cassandra at DOK Leipzig

in 57th International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film

by Martin Horyna

Spartacus & Cassandra, which received an award at DOK Leipzig, focuses its attention in the same direction as another two distinctive films that are currently cruising the festival circuit with great success. They all concentrate on the topic of the complicated fates of children who grow up without their parents and thus must face truly adult challenges.

In Waiting for August, which was awarded at Hot Docs and at Karlovy Vary IFF, the director Teodora Ana Mihai walked almost unnoticed into a gloomy, timeless zone encompassing the lives of seven Romanian siblings. As we see in the film, the children’s mother left to work in Italy and their father had abandoned them years ago – the whole burden of household duties thus encumbers fifteen-year-old Giorgiana. Toto and His Sisters (Toto si surorile lui), which was presented at the New Directors competition in San Sebastian as well as DOK Leipzig, captures the arduous moments in the life of ten-year-old Toto and his two sisters, who dwell on a pile of rubbish and use syringes in a desolate drug den in Bucharest. While Waiting for August astonishes with the director’s sense for detail as well as her ability to paint a complex portrait of an incomplete family, in Toto and His Sisters the director Alexander Nanau has managed to convey an almost haptic proximity to the characters, thus revealing the glaring brutality of life. Contrastingly, Spartacus & Cassandra partly dismisses the pursuit of a naturalistic tone. While the story of two Roma siblings growing up in France is depicted in a rather lyrical form, this in no way diminishes the picture’s chilling effect.

“I was born in Slobozia, in Romania. At one year old, I could already walk. At two years old, I was eating mud. At three years old, my father was in prison. At four years old, I begged on the street with my sister. Spartacus was begging on the streets. At five years old, I started school. At six years old, I skipped a grade. At seven years old, I came to France. At eight years old, I was stealing car radios. At nine years old, I met Camille. At ten years old, I escaped from a hostel. At 11 years old, I could speak French. At 12 years old, the squat burnt down. At 13 years old, I was forced to leave my parents.” These are the words with which Spartacus introduces himself in the opening sequence, thus characterising the poetic audiovisual imagery and narrative subjectivisation which foreshadow the director’s original approach to film language. Overstepping the usual social survey, the numerous imaginative sequences still provide a truly deep insight into the souls of the thirteen-year-old boy and his sister Cassandra, three years his junior.

They both live in uncertainty and without a roof over their heads. Their father drowned both his responsibility and dignity in severe hangovers – he has been trying in vain to break free from the crippling manacles of alcohol for many years, and his desire to look at the world through yet another empty bottle has remained the main driving force of his actions. Their mother, clingy and most likely mentally ill, is no better. Growing up in the care of the trapeze artist Camille, Spartacus and Cassandra now face a difficult decision: whether to live with their parents in poverty and without any securities, or to break all family ties and set off to a better future. Despite their tender age, both protagonists are fully aware of their situation. They are not passive pawns in the grand scheme of events, not victims of a merciless social reality. They are not asking for our pity: they want understanding and empathy.

Spartacus & Cassandra transcends to an almost impressionist film in certain moments, which is emphasised by Aurelie Menetrieux’s score. The director Ionis Nuguet looks for elusive beauty in the protagonists’ formidable lives, yet the film is not overtly sentimental in the effect it creates, and it is far from euphoric. Rather, it seeks refuge in melancholy – it is gentle and temperate, but still deeply emotional in essence. Films like this deepen our sensitivity to the gloomy fate of (not only) Romany communities and also to the surrounding world as such; therefore they are truly necessary in the current times.

Edited by Birgit Beumers