Van life. Connecting with nature. The power of music. Teddy bears. For those who don’t know who Irina Rimes is, she’s a Moldovan singer-songwriter based in Romania. On My Way With Irina Rimes is a documentary limited series that uses a camera crew to follow her and her team as they take a trip through Romania and parts of Moldova so she can find the inspiration to finish her upcoming album, Acasa.
I was drawn to this documentary after having spent a week visiting family in Bucharest, Romania. I hadn’t been in several years, and I found that my view of the city and Romania as a whole was now filtered through all of the knowledge and opinions I’ve come to hold since I last visited. Romania isn’t the most well-off country, which was more apparent to me this time around (my dad joked that Romanians love to complain about how the country is terrible, a sharp contrast to how Americans speak of the U.S,), but more often than not I found the city to be full of elegant, extraordinary beauty. The road trip at the center of On My Way explores the beauty of Romania and of its people, which ends up inspiring Rimes.
In the very first episode, Rimes plainly states what she wants to accomplish with the documentary: “I want to show people the struggle of an artist. So mom, dad, my relatives, my friends understand why I don’t have time to visit. Why I don’t always answer the phone. Why I don’t sleep at night. But most of all, why I write what I write.” There is some attempt at showing her artistic struggles, but the portrayal of the dark inner conflict that her words suggest soon gives way to an intimate portrait of the singer as an authentic, thoughtful, and kind-hearted person.
Most of the struggles Rimes endures are shown in the first two episodes. In episode one, “Taie,” she details her wrestling with her recording contract and label, as well as her own personal issues. She has more than fulfilled her obligations to her France-based label, but whenever she tries to arrange a meeting to exit her contract, she finds the label people evasive and unwilling to speak. In the second episode, “Drumul,” she finally gets ahold of someone from the label, but the conversation does not go well and leaves her in tears.
From there on out, there’s no further mention of label issues in the series. Instead, her personal struggles take the spotlight. I wish we saw some objective resolution on the business side of things, as it doesn’t seem to bother her for the rest of the trip which seems odd given how much focus it's given in the first couple of episodes. Perhaps her renewed creative spirit from the trip made her feel better about label matters. Prior to the trip, Rimes says that “the way home… is a way through certain obstacles.” However, those obstacles end up being more about her emotional growth as the documentary continues, which makes for a more compelling watch.
She describes being an artist as having to give oneself up while simultaneously being at the center of things. The privilege of such an occupation is being allowed to be vulnerable with her audience and the people who surround her. We learn from a phone call between Irina and her mother that the life of an artist has caused her much anxiety, stress, and exhaustion. Her mother advises her to prioritize her health above all, and for Irina, this trip across Romania is an opportunity to do this while hopefully inspiring her to complete her album, Acasa (which means “home” in Romanian) that’s been in the works for two years. And so begins a journey from one “home” in Bucharest, Romania to her childhood home in Izvoare, Moldova. Along the way, she stops at various cities in Romania and Moldova to connect with the people there, both musically and simply as herself.
Although the focus is on recording music and performing, the documentary also makes time for small detours that show that the healing Rimes is seeking doesn’t need to be tied to her identity as an artist, which I found to be a refreshing perspective for this type of documentary. Music may be the biggest way in which she connects with the world, but it’s not the only way. One of my favorite examples of this is when she visits a teddy bear museum at the biggest brown bear sanctuary in the world in Zarnesti. She immediately goes to hug a giant teddy bear that is twice her height before donating a beloved teddy bear of her own to the museum. It’s a very cute moment that shows how therapeutic it can be to connect with your inner child and how healing doesn’t always have to be complex and arduous.
Most episodes of the series have moments where Irina performs for a crowd of people or records music for the album, which are often intercut with talking heads from people who work in the Romanian music industry as they describe what makes Irina special as a person and an artist. The talking heads emphasize dichotomies of underground vs. mainstream, rock vs. pop, and live shows vs. radio. They all assess how Irina walks the line between the extremes. Fellow Romanian musician Adrian Despot talks about how she has too much soul for the mainstream, while Romanian actor and musician Tudor Chirila says she’s both rock and radio. Her band and manager say that her live shows attract an underground audience that otherwise wouldn’t listen to her on the radio. How does Irina manage this balancing act? Programe Pro FM director Manuel Dinculescu puts it simply: “She’s a person you just like the moment you meet her.”
Everyone, when asked about Rimes, highlights how genuine she is. By the halfway point of the documentary, the point has been so belabored that the talking heads often become repetitive. Fortunately, the documentary gives Irina numerous opportunities to show what kind of person she is through her actions, and we see that Dinculescu’s words ring true – it’s impossible not to like her. When Rimes first started out as an artist, she would invite fans into her home and would play intimate concerts in her living room for them.
Her performances throughout the documentary are an extension of that, and she treats everyone she meets as though they were a guest in her own home. At a performance in Brasov, she hands out blankets to audience members, a small girl comes up to give her a hug, and the audience sings her happy birthday. She concludes the performance with a song about her mother, which is intercut with old photos and videos of her mom. Afterward, the band members talk about how the song still emotionally moves them despite having performed it dozens of times.
The most touching moment in the documentary comes when Irina visits a Hopes and Homes for Children (HHC) house in Piatra Neamt. HHC moves foster children into family-based houses which replace Romania’s now-closed foster homes. There, Irina sings for the children, and afterward sits and talks and connects with them, encouraging them to do well in school and to be dedicated in all that they do. Before she leaves, she takes a Polaroid photo with every child so that they can have a memento of her visit. Some might think this is vain, but I think most people, myself included, would love to have a physical photograph of themselves with a famous pop singer from their country, and the fact that it’s not just a photo stored in an iPhone app makes it all the more meaningful. The children clearly adore her, and her interactions with them show a real attentiveness and level of care on Irina’s part that is worth the sideques
The best example of Irina’s authenticity, however, comes from a visit to her former singing teacher, Ludmila Ciobanu, in Soroca, Moldova. Ciobanu tells a story about how she took Irina to perform on national television when she was in 6th grade. Irina had a journal of poems she wrote, but when Ciobanu told her to get her journal out and choose a poem to perform, Irina realized she had forgotten her journal. Ciobanu told Irina, who was in tears, that she had 20 minutes to write a poem to perform, and the documentary then shows us Irina’s performance from that night. The impromptu poem, dedicated to her mother, features lines like “You are a shrine for faith and for my love” and “Your tears are the rain that raised me.” It’s all incredibly impressive, especially considering that she was twelve years old and wrote it at the last minute. It speaks volumes about Irina’s capacity for genuine expression, which is what makes her so special.
Those involved in the documentary consistently praise Irina for her profound songwriting that focuses on sadness, but Irina clarifies at the end of the documentary that just because she sings about sad things doesn’t mean she’s sad. In fact, she’s very happy, and chooses to leave her happiness alone in her music so as not to bother it, simply letting it exist. She writes about sadness because she doesn’t want to let her feelings go.
Listening to her talk, it’s clear that the trip has been a healing and inspiring experience for her, and that she feels that she can once again create something true. On My Way, like any documentary, has a specific perspective and goal, and by virtue of being edited doesn’t present the whole raw story. However, I still think it manages to create and present something true in the same way Rimes hopes to by showing how her interactions with the people and the place she calls home help her to better understand her own artistry.
On My Way: Irina Rimes is streaming on HBO Max.