INTERVIEW: Edet Belzberg's "Children Underground" Brings The Lives of Romanian Street Children To Light
by Nick Poppy
(indieWIRE/ 09.19.01) — During its two-decade rule, Nicolai Ceausescu‘s Communist regime outlawed birth control and abortion in a disastrously short-sighted attempt to bolster Romania’s flagging labor force. The resultant baby boom did not populate the country with legions of workers; instead, as the Communists fell and the country’s economy collapsed, Romania became home to thousands of dispossessed and unwanted children.
“Children Underground,” Edet Belzberg‘s first film, observes the lives of several Romanian street children in Bucharest’s Piata Victoriei train station. These children live in the station’s tunnels and corridors, in almost indescribable conditions; they sleep in cardboard, and they beg and steal and prostitute themselves for food and money. Almost without exception they use drugs, especially the inhalant Aurolac, a cheap, toxic paint that coats their faces in silver. The film’s story, told in a series of long takes and discrete scenes, is one of depressing sameness. The children bounce in and out of shelters: they fight; they huff paint; they are beaten. These tattered lives, offensive to our every notion of what childhood should be, are carried on in full view of both Bucharest’s business commuters and Belzberg’s camera.
“Children Underground,” which opens today (Wednesday) at the Film Forum in New York City, was produced with no soundtrack, no graphics, and no digital effects. Absent is the sexy charm of delinquency so common to fiction film. This is not “Trainspotting” or “Kids.” It is cinema verite at its most blunt and unforgiving, and it is heartbreaking. Watching “Children Underground,” one can’t help wondering what it was like to make it — to live with these children and to film their straits. indieWIRE spoke with Edet Belzberg recently about her powerful style, gaining the children’s trust, and documentary funding and distribution.
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indieWIRE: “Children Underground” isn’t an easy film to watch. It’s really strong material. Could you talk about the sorts of reactions you’ve gotten?
Edet Belzberg: It varies. People are generally very moved, sometimes moved to tears, sometimes are angry. The response has been very strong. Often people are very disturbed by the children being abused, and the violence that is shown, and sometimes what they feel during the film, rather than it being directed towards the issue or the children or the film, it’s sometimes directed towards me. But I have to say, more often the response has been really positive to the film. People have been moved and people have understood the children, which is what I wanted to do.
iW: Angry because you didn’t intervene?
Belzberg: The biggest question people have after watching this film is why the filmmaker did not intervene.
iW: What do you tell them?
Belzberg: Basically, I tell them what is shown in the film is a fraction of what actually takes place. That what you see in the film doesn’t even compare to what the children endure on a daily basis. A child could be beaten as many as four or five times a day by a passerby, a shopkeeper, another street kid, and so I really felt that it was my responsibility to show the reality of the situation and to really focus on long term goals rather than short term solutions. Had I intervened once, twice, ten times, even a hundred times every day while I was there, it wouldn’t have changed the situation at all, and it wouldn’t have been an accurate representation of the children’s lives. People who had seen rough cuts often said to me, you can’t show this, you can’t do this. People will not be able to handle it. People often suggested I dilute it and take out the violent scenes, and that was something I was extremely opposed to.
iW: Talk about the idea of filmmaking, particularly documentary filmmaking, as having a purpose.
Belzberg: The purpose might be to show another world, to go places where society usually doesn’t go. And then, something I did want to avoid was for the film to be in any way didactic. I wanted people to see through the children’s eyes, I wanted to tell the children’s story. I had seen many documentaries and magazine pieces and news pieces on Romanian street children, and all of them were documentaries which had voiceover narration, which described the situation, and there were images and montages of the kids and the Aurolac and everything, and that was something I felt didn’t really capture what the children were actually going through, and then also, I felt that it was something that a viewer doesn’t really absorb. It’s a news piece, another news piece, the children were still nameless, still faceless even, and it was equally dehumanizing, and that was something that I wanted to work against.
iW: Do you feel like your film has become a participant in the discussion on street children?
Belzberg: A little bit. Hopefully the film will be shown at different conferences, and it’s being used by the World Health Organization now, and it’s also being used by Brown University in their public health courses, so there are institutions which are using the film to instigate discussion and to help talk about the issue. So it is slowly being used as a tool for education, and as a tool by these institutions, and I hope it will continue to be.
iW: Maybe we could talk about distribution a little bit. You have a run at Film Forum…
Belzberg: That’s right.
iW: And HBO?
Belzberg: That’s right, on Cinemax, in the spring.
iW: Do you have an educational distributor?
Belzberg: Not yet. People are contacting us, so we make the tape available. We’re making it available probably cheaper than an educational distributor would, which is fine, but hopefully we’ll be able to get an educational distributor as well.
iW: Did you find it difficult getting your distribution, or did Sundance help it take off?
Belzberg: Actually, HBO came in before Sundance. I had run out of money. The Soros Foundation was really the reason why this film was able to be made, and then at a certain point I ran out of money, and HBO stepped in, which is great, and I was able to finish the film and get in to Sundance.
iW: What do you think the funding picture is like for documentary people now that that substantial funder is gone?
Belzberg: It’s grim. It’s basically grim I have to say, thank god for HBO and Cinemax, because they’re really an outlet for social issue documentaries to be seen. And if it’s not going to be on HBO, which has a very large market, then there’s Cinemax. And I think that’s part of what Sheila Nevins does is, she plays documentaries which will never get a showing anywhere else. So she knows it’s not going to have a huge viewership, and she can’t put it on the America Undercover series, then she does find a home for it at Cinemax. These are documentaries that would never be seen otherwise. “Children Underground” was rejected everywhere. Everywhere.
iW: Where, exactly?
Belzberg: It was rejected by all the different networks and all the other outlets you would think would be there for documentaries. So if they hadn’t stepped in, I’d still be raising money from foundations, which I would have done, but it’s a long process. I would still be doing it. So they allowed me to finish the film. People ask how long did it take to make the film, and I say, three and a half years, and there’s a look of horror. But it’s mostly raising money. To make the film itself was about a year and a half, but you had to stop and start and raise money, and that’s the most time consuming part.
iW: Could you talk about the production process?
Belzberg: What happened was, I went out a little bit before the DP came and just looked for the right kids to follow. I met Anna and I knew immediately that she would be a subject. We spent about a week with the children without a camera, just being with them and hanging out, understanding their lives, understanding the rhythm of their lives, and then we slowly introduced the camera. And they were probably self-conscious for a while, but that slowly dropped.
iW: I imagine some people would probably show up, find the kids, and immediately produce the camera.
Belzberg: The way I do it, I need to have a time set to understand the world, to become absorbed by the community, by the kids, and understand really the rhythm of what is happening. This other documentary that I’m starting to edit, that one I spent about a year, just meeting with the subjects and talking to them, before I ever brought a camera in. I didn’t introduce a camera until about a year into it, and then I did, and then it really took a while to get used to the camera, and me with the camera.
iW: Did the kids warm up to you pretty quickly?
Belzberg: They did. In the beginning there was the playing for the camera and the making faces and peace signs and everything, and then it slowly disappeared.
iW: Did they understand what you were doing?
Belzberg: I would explain to them what we were doing. They wanted to know, they would demand to know. They had seen cameras there before, they know that people show what’s happening, and I would explain to them what we were doing and they would want their story to be told. Maracena [one of the children featured in “Children Underground”] would say, please show people what’s happening here.
iW: How did Romanians feel about what you were doing?
Belzberg: People would often ask me if I was ever scared, if the children were ever aggressive with me, and really the only people who would accost us were passersby. People really did not like what we were doing. We were stopped by the police a few times. They really felt that we were showing Romania in a very poor light.
iW: Was there a problem with being American, on top of that?
Belzberg: Absolutely. ‘Fix the problems in your own country, don’t you have problems in your own country, why do you have to come here?’
iW: Wow. I have some technical questions. What did you shoot on?
Belzberg: DVC Pro, and Mini-DV.
iW: How do you like those formats?
Belzberg: They’re what I could afford at the time, and they were fine. They did the job well.
iW: How much raw footage did you have?
Belzberg: About a hundred hours. Which at the time seemed like an enormous amount, but things have changed so dramatically since then. It’s so funny how things have changed. When I first came back and I told people a hundred hours, they were just beside themselves. And now it’s much less than normal. You usually hear three, four hundred now. Just because DV has changed things so dramatically, you can shoot so much.
iW: Did you shoot your footage in one discrete period, or over several visits?
Belzberg: The body of the film was shot over one time period of about two months, and then I went back a year later and did the follow-ups. I had to go back twice in order to find all the children.
iW: Did you emerge from the shooting changed?
Belzberg: I don’t think changed. I think I emerged affected. It was a very difficult period when I came back — coming back was as difficult as going over there. Leaving the kids, leaving that situation, and not knowing where they were. That was very difficult.
iW: Sounds like your DP [Wolfgang Held] was a real sport.
Belzberg: He was. Had it not been my first film, I don’t know if I expected
to do everything that we did, very naively. I thought, oh, this is what DP’s
do. It’s funny; I had no concepts of certain parameters that do exist. But
he was amazing. I was paying him per week what he usually made per day, and
he gave it everything and really accepted everything, so it was really
iW: Have you shown the film in Eastern Europe?
Belzberg: I’ve shown it at the festival at Karlovy Vary, and I hope to show it in Romania. I’ve tried a number of times to show it at the Romanian Cultural Center here in New York, and they won’t show it.
iW: Do you get any positive feedback from Romania?
Belzberg: I get it from social workers and people working with the kids, absolutely. They’re using the film to raise money, they’re very grateful for it. They’re using it to train their social workers. A great response from social workers over there, and people who are actually working with street children. But aside from that, no. But different politicians, actually a woman who’s a member of parliament saw it and thought it should be shown in Romania. Romanian journalists have responded really well to it, so I’m hoping it will be shown in Romania.
[Nick Poppy is a filmmaker and writer living in Brooklyn.]