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