Category: Political Documentaries

The power of documentaries to explore sides of life previously unseen is the reason for the whole genre’s existence. Through a simple presentation of truth (or what the editing room produces as truth), you can accomplish more to change social views than any work of fiction could ever hope. Sadly, documentary’s aren’t an especially popular medium of mass consumption and it is rare for a documentary to get a wide release. Especially for films that cover harrowing material such as genocide or poverty, it’s not the sort of life-affirming or action packed material that draws audiences in. Yet, if more people saw films like Gasland or God Grew Tired of Us, perhaps we could have more substantive conversations about these issues. Similar to Michael Winterbottom’s docudrama The Road to Guantanamo, 2001’s Oscar nominee Children Underground will open your eye to a heartbreaking tragedy and injustice in the world that should incense anyone with a soul.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Romania (a former Soviet bloc nation) became a dictatorship led by former Communist Nicolei Ceaucescu. In order to boost Romania’s work force and to become a competitor in the new European economy, Ceaucesucu banned all forms of contraception as well as abortion. This ill-advised policy decision led to an explosion in the population but not a large enough increase in production to feed all of the new children that were being born. Kids were being born but obviously they weren’t old enough to work yet so they weren’t contributing anything to the economy. They were just drags on it. So an already poor Eastern European nation suddenly had even more mouths to feed. Parents couldn’t afford to take care of their own children, and by the time the film was shot in 2001, there were over 20,000 homeless children in the capital alone.

Edet Belzberg’s documentary Children Underground follows the lives of five children (and glimpses into the lives of some of the other children around them) who, whether as orphans or runaways, live in the subways of the Romanian capital of Bucharest. Cristina is a 16 year old girl, but you’d be forgiven for thinking she were a boy for the film’s first ten minutes. With a bald head and a tough as nails attitude, Cristina and many of the other girls living in the subway station keep their hair short and their demeanor masculine to protect themselves from molestation and rape. Cristina is the leader of her own little group of survivors beneath the train station. The children beg and perform odd jobs in order to find enough money to eat, but more often than not, they purchase a paint known as Aurolac, which they huff to get high so they can momentarily ignore how hungry they’ve become.

The other four children’s situations are just as tragic. Mihai is a smart, sensitive 11 year old boy. He loves poetry and science and excels at the school he attends for the street children. Yet, he is terrified of his alcoholic father and ran away from home and is now just another lost, drug-addicted soul. Ana and Marian are two tragically young siblings. Ana, female 10, ran away from home when her parents were no longer able to feed her and her brother Marian, 8, and she dragged Marian along with her. She too is addicted to huffing the paint, and she and her brother both regularly receive beatings from the other children. The last is “Macarena,” the nickname given to another 15-16 year old girl who has the worst Aurolac addiction of all. She spends the majority of the film walking around in an almost completely oblivious haze as a self-defense mechanism against the cruel and uncaring world she inhabits.

Much like Grave of the Fireflies, it wasn’t more than twenty minutes into Children Underground before I started crying, and I didn’t stop until the credits rolled. Although the film isn’t for the faint of heart, it’s still almost mandatory viewing for anyone who cares about the realities of child poverty in the rest of the world and our moral obligation to keep tragedies such as this from happening. The camera doesn’t flinch from the violence and tragedy on display for a second (but more on why that was a slight problem later). You see 10 year old Ana kicked in the face and then brutally beaten by older children because they accused her of stealing their Aurolac. A grown man mercilessly kicks Macarena in the stomach over and over for crying in the subway. After Mihai and Ana have an argument at a park, he starts cutting himself with deep gashes up and down his arm as penance.

You see the hypocrisy and cruelty of the adult world that turned its back on these kids. Halfway through the film, a nun tries to take Ana and Marian to a home. Before they leave, Macarena follows the nun and begs to be taken as well. When she’s abandoned by yet another adult, she slumps in total despair and wails against her fate. Even after Ana and Marian make it to the home, the people running it determine for seemingly arbitrary and bullshit reasons that Ana and Marian wouldn’t be fit for the home simply because they’ve been in the street for too long. So, they’re dropped back on the streets. A priest walks by the children later in the film and berates them. He tells them that their lot in their life is their fault and it could have been avoided. You see grown-ups walking by with their eyes shut as these children destroy themselves in broad daylight, and almost no one ever stops to try and help them.

The rays of light in the film are rare at best. And it is the people with the least to give that regularly give the most in the film. Because if there’s ever been a scathing portrayal of what happens when a few control most of the wealth, this is it. You regularly get shots of the people living their lives in Bucharest who seem to be managing just fine. Yet, these homeless, starving children are beneath their attention. You see business owners exploit the children for labor but then turn their backs on them as soon as they are no longer useful. It’s the poor social workers who are their only friends in the adult world. It’s the volunteers at the local street children school that protects them. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, a woman living in the mostly destroyed ruins of a building shares her shelter with Mihai. She literally has next to nothing, but what she has, she gives to a child in need.

However, one ultimately has to hold the filmmaker at least partially responsible for some of the terrible things that happened during this film. Unless a camera was left in a hidden place and just happened to capture some of the film’s most horrific moments, Edet Belzberg witnessed truly horrendous acts of violence being committed against these kids and chose to let her camera keep running rather than stop them from happening. Understanding that many documentarians take a “hands-off” approach to film-making, to me there is absolutely no excuse to watch an 11 year old child slicing up his own wrists and not do anything to stop him or to see a group of kids brutally beating a 10 year old girl and not stepping in. By not involving yourself with the subject you’re shooting (especially when it involves at-risk children), it can come off as being exploitative.

The only other problem the film faces is the inexplicable decision to shoot certain scenes in black & white. It seems like a stylistic decision that distracts from the otherwise visceral reality of the film. Because if you can watch this film and not get absolutely sick to your stomach, you are made of ice-cold steel. Despite those two minor problems, Children Underground remains one of the greatest documentary films I’ve ever seen. In fact, it might be the greatest. The only reason it’s not going to get perfect marks is because of those two issues. Few films have left me such an emotional wreck after the film was done. When a film makes me say out loud multiple times “I can’t handle this anymore,” it’s a sign of how harrowing and powerful the film is. So if you ever need your trivial American life concerns put into perspective, Children Underground will remind you just how horrendous life in the rest of the world can be.

Final Score: A

Sometimes I feel like I begin to belabor this point on this blog, but I am an unreformed liberal. I’m not just a liberal by American standards; my political views would probably be more in line with a European socialist nation than even our most “leftist” American state. With that said, it probably shouldn’t come as any surprise that I wasn’t a big fan of the Bush administration. While I’ve never considered George W. Bush to be patently evil (if for no other reason than I don’t think he’s intelligent enough to be that crafty), his cabinet members and advisers were a whole ‘nother story. The war in Iraq was a colossal mistake and the treatment of many Muslims here at home and around the world was such a blatant disregard for our national values of freedom and liberty that it was nearly sickening. The so-called “War on Terror” is the most obvious example of the rapid erosion of liberties in this nation under the name of “freedom”, and the docudrama The Road to Guantanamo is a chilling expose of one of the most shocking atrocities committed under the mantle of the War on Terror.

Combining archival footage of the initial War in Afghanistan (and later reports on the construction of Guantanamo), interviews with the three real-life protagonists, and dramatic re-enactments of events there were no cameras around to record, The Road to Guantanamo is the heart-wrenching true story of the “Tipton Three,” three British Muslims who were falsely detained and tortured in the Guantanamo Bay prison camp for over two years until their eventual release in 2004. Ruhal Ahmed, Asif Iqbal, and Shafiq Rasul were three British citizens who had traveled to Pakistan weeks after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. for Shafiq’s arranged marriage to a girl from his family’s Pakistani village. While there, they decided to enter Afghanistan to help out the locals who were shortly to be out of home, food, and virtually all forms of shelter. After the bombing begins in earnest, the Tipton Three try to return to Pakistan but wind up in a village controlled by Taliban forces. When U.S. bombing runs threaten to destroy the town they’re in, the men try to flee with one of the Taliban convoys and end up arrested by Afghanistani forces. When it’s discovered that they’re British and speak English, the men are considered high-priority suspects and spend the next two years of their lives being viciously tortured and questioned by American intelligence officers.

It can be easy to put aside thoughts of human rights abuses when you try to rationalize the existence of a place like Guantanamo Bay. After 9/11, this nation was hell-bent on making sure another incident like that never occurred again. So, to many people, thoughts like “I don’t care if these Middle Eastern men (even if Afghanistan can almost hardly be called the Middle East and has more in common with Pakistan and India than Iran or Iraq) are detained indefinitely and without trial if it means I’m safe” don’t seem radical. You never stop to think about what happens when an innocent man gets caught up in all of this. While it was assuredly quite dumb of Rahul, Shafiq, and Asif to go into Afghanistan right before the Americans were sure to invade, these men weren’t Al-Qaeda or terrorists. They were just young British men with perhaps poor decision making skills and extraordinarily bad luck who spent two years in complete hell just because they were brown and in the wrong plaec at the wrong time. Much like with capital punishment (where the possibility of one innocent man being executed has the potential to nullify the entire institution), the chance (and ultimate reality) that three men could slip through the cracks of a system built to protect global citizens from terrorism seemingly says that this system needs to be rebuilt from scratch.

Director Michael Winterbottom ensures a gut, visceral reaction to the mistreatment seen on screen. While the dramatic re-enactments are just that (re-enactments), Winterbottom tapes them with a grainy hand-held camera that expertly gives it a feeling of verisimilitude. Much of the opening act of the film is a chronicle of their road trip that led them from England to Pakistan to Afghanistan, and that establishes an emotional connection with these men who are much like any young men in their 20’s. So to see their world so completely shattered by war and eventual imprisonment only heightens the anger Winterbottom wants to evoke in his audience (which he succeeds in doing). During the segments where Rahul, Shafiq, and Asif are being tortured at the various camps they stayed in before their release, Winterbottom doesn’t hold back from showing the gritty and nearly unwatchable details of the hell U.S. intelligence officers put them (and their many co-prisoners) at the camp. Winterbottom’s portrayal of the atrocities committed at this camp is actually so effective that if I were a jihadist, I would show this film as a propaganda tool to recruit people to my cause. It’s simply that effective.

If the film has a significant flaw, it is that it can move a little too fast for its own good. Winterbottom places so much emphasis on each scene achieving maximum emotional impact that the context of certain moments can be lost in the wake. The film is told so primarily through the eyes and mouths of the Tipton Three that when events occur outside of their perception, very little explanation is given as to why it’s happening which works to disorient the audience much like the individuals on screen, but it fails to educate the audience and helps give credence to claims the far right would have which is that this is leftist propaganda. Their release from Guantanamo was an especially murky subject in the film as little to no reason is actually given as to why American suddenly decided to let these guys go after keeping them prisoner for so long. However, these are minor quibbles against an otherwise phenomenal film. For everyone that is a liberal, muslim, or at the minimum, not a neo-conservative fanatic, you should watch this film as it will open your eyes to the myriad ways our nation’s values were subverted in our own quest to protect ourselves.

Final Score: A