Children Underground

Belzberg’s impressive documentary, her first film, is both candid and sympathetic. Her intimate but unintrusive camera follows 5 of the 20,000 abandoned and runaway children living rough in Bucharest. The kids hustle from day to day for food, a warm sleeping place, water to drink and to wash their hands and faces, and to defend their patch in the subways at Piata Victoriei station. Belzberg has their confidence and at times it’s harrowing to watch. Mihai, a reflective 12-year-old, raging, rips his arms with glass. Willowy Macarena, 14, sniffing paint, face smeared silver, tries to explain her addiction: ‘It’s like paradise,’ she says, ‘you dream you eat.’

Mihai yearns to be with his mother and sister but won’t stay with a father who chains him by the neck and beats him. The mother of the two youngest children – Marian, eight, and Ana, ten – can’t feed them by herself but her new partner doesn’t want them and abuses them. Ana ran away and Marian followed her – they stick together.

Macarena and 16-year-old Cristina, the ‘family’ leader, are ex-inmates of the state orphanages of the Ceausescu era. They look and dress like boys – it’s a shock to discover they’re not. Cristina, who shaves her head, has a simple motto: ‘the fist is what matters’. She’s as tough as Macarena is vulnerable.

The credits tell us that Mihai and Marian are now in residential centres. The state, after years of utter neglect of these kids, is funding rehabilitation programmes and social workers. The younger kids, who somehow retain a puppy-like resilience and playfulness, could be rehabilitated. For them there may be hope. But probably not for Macarena. Alone on the streets, her mind gone, it seems too late.

New Internationalist issue 337 magazine cover This article is from the August 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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