In 1997, after finishing a master's degree in international studies at Columbia University, 27-year-old fledgling filmmaker Edet Belzberg went to Romania to document the desperate circumstances of homeless street
children. In the course of filming, Belzberg befriended a group of five children living in a Bucharest subway tunnel. Guided by a 15-year-old girl who identifies as male for her own protection, Belzberg chronicled the daily peril the children face in order to, as 12-year-old Mihai explains, "live free" of institutional and familial abuse. The result of Belzberg's work is Children Underground, a vérité portrait that won this year's Special Jury Prize at Sundance.
CP: Did you find that the ethnic fragmentation that makes Romania so fragile affected the children's lives as well?
BELZBERG: With the kids, the one thing below living on the street was being Roma. Calling someone a Gypsy was very derogatory, and that really played out with the children.
CP: The teenage orphan Macarena could be Roma. Was she singled out?
BELZBERG: No, she had a good standing within the group. There really was a hierarchical structure, with Christina as the leader and Ana being second in command. And although Macarena wasn't a leader, she had a very important role within the group.
CP: Can you comment on the sexual identity of the kids in Children Underground--or sexual abuse, which you don't really address directly in the film?
BELZBERG: Christina is the greatest example of what's necessary to survive on the street. Her adopting this male identity was a way for her to survive. You will see a lot of girls try to camouflage themselves to hide their femininity as a defense, because the girls are raped. And you hear Christina say that it's more difficult for girls on the street than it is for boys.
CP: Has the film helped the situation, in your view?
BELZBERG: Well, in terms of raising awareness, when I started shooting the film, I really did think that in a few months I'd raise all the money and that there would be this large movement. I was very naive in that sense, and I thought the children I focused on would be saved. I thought it would take six months, and it took four years to complete--most of which was spent raising money to complete the film.
CP: Have you kept in touch with the kids?
BELZBERG: I was in Romania about two months ago and wasn't able to find Ana or Mihai. The situation is very different there. It's much worse. Basically, what's captured in the film is really the children's golden years in terms of what's happening now. Heroin has replaced [the paint thinner] Aurolac. One child can't afford a syringe, so you will have five kids chipping in for one syringeful and then sharing a needle. Christina is still on the street. She is a heroin addict, and pregnant. Macarena is still on the street. The police have started a new policy to clean up...so the kids are constantly on the run. You won't find anymore a group of children living in one place.
The only thing that gives me any hope is that I am working now with ChildHope International, and we are doing a fundraiser. And with the showing on HBO [next year], I'm hoping that it will generate some response.
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