"I want good to happen to me, not evil."—Mihai, age 12
In order to increase Romania's work force and economic power, dictator Nicolae Ceausescu decided to bolster the surplus population. So, he outlawed abortion and contraception. The result: when his regime toppled, thousands of abandoned children were left drifting in the tide of history. Even many with families found themselves living in such poverty and squalor that escape was preferable to hunger and abuse. Even now, 20,000 children remain on the streets.
And for the next 100 minutes, you will meet only five of them.
Shot on video by Edet Belzberg, Children Underground takes an unsentimental look at survival among the children clustered in one Bucharest subway station. The leader, Cristina (age 16) cuts her hair short and disguises herself as a boy in order to avoid sexual assault. She plays the brute, pushing the other children around, ostensibly for their own protection. But there is a look behind her eyes that suggests brutality is as much a calling as a necessity for her.
Ana (age 10) and her brother Marian (age 8) are runaways. At home, they had no clothes or electricity. In the station, they huddle together on cardboard mats. Sometimes Ana beats her brother. Sometimes, she is beaten by the older children.
14-year-old Macarena wanders the train platforms, her jaw hanging in a stupid grin, her lips and fingers coated silver. She is an Aurolac addict, inhaling cheap paint for a high. Most of the kids pass around the plastic bags filled with the paint, but for Macarena, it is her whole world. Although sometimes, she is coherent enough to trade paint for a little food.
Mihai (age 12) claims his father abused him, so he ran away to Bucharest. Is this life any better?
These are real children. They do odd jobs for station shopkeepers to earn a little cash for food, and they steal what they need beyond that. The state provides some services—education, medicine—but there is very little to go around. Where else would they go? Cristina speaks of the draconian orphanage from which she escaped, describing it in terms that would make Charles Dickens cringe. Instead, this cynical young woman now leads an army of beggars.
And the parents? When Ana and Marian visit home, we see that their mother is broke, and their stepfather clearly despises both children and thinks Ana is a "psychopath." Indeed, a year later, when police finally clear out the subway station, Ana is sent home with a diagnosis of mental illness. Marian is placed in a state center. Mihai's own parents refuse to turn over his identification papers to his social worker, insisting he come home and denying any charges of abuse. Their eyes fill with tears, and they seem sincere. Which side is telling the truth?
Children Underground never flinches from the terrible conditions of the streets of Romania, but it never condescends or sentimentalizes. Cristina muses, "What can I say about my life. I feel deserted. I feel bad." But she is also quite capable of dishing out as much pain as she can endure. Even when help is offered, some of the children keep finding their way back into their degraded lives. "They get hooked on the street," one social worker offers, almost throwing up her hands in frustration.
The film is not stylized (and its off-the-cuff video image is sometimes not up to "Hollywood" standards), but it approaches its subjects in raw and straightforward fashion. Indeed, it may be fair to say it rambles a bit, without any clear focus much of the time. This may be intentional, as the children themselves seem to lack focus. In any case, the mundane details of their lives, captured without editorial comment by Belzberg, is riveting enough to sustain the film's running time. Docurama offers the DVD with only a handful of extras, as if the experiences of these children largely speak for themselves. There is a text introduction by first time director Belzberg, some crew biographies, and a disturbingly large number of links to human rights organizations—disturbing, in that we live in a world that requires so many organizations to perform what should be second nature to any ethical person. There are also some text-based "Where Are They Now" profiles for each of the five children profiled in the feature. They offer only a sad reminder that for most people, the more things change, the more they stay exactly the same.
Children Underground is relentlessly depressing. I suspect that few people would watch it merely for entertainment purposes. But Edet Belzberg has made an important document that chronicles the lives of forgotten children. These stories need to be told, even if most gestures to help these lost children end in failure. Perhaps we can learn not to let this happen again.
After I watched this film, late at night, I went into my four-month-old daughter's bedroom and kissed her on the forehead while she slept. And I promised not to let her become anything like the children Belzberg's camera followed in the course of making this film.
Although this court finds that it can offer no direct social services to the children suffering in this film, Edet Belzberg is acquitted of all charges. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Statement by Edet Belzberg
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