When "Children Underground" director Edet Belzberg bounded onto the stage at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival to accept a Special Jury Prize, it came as a bit of a shock. This woman made that movie?
Belzberg is in her early 30s but looks younger, and more to the point seems ... well, not grizzled enough to have directed an in-your-face documentary about Romanian street kids who live in Bucharest's subway system, panhandle, beat one another up, sniff paint and engage in self-mutilation.
"She seems so sweet and innocent and not like a hardened street journalist," says Nancy Abraham, vice president of original programming at HBO, whose sister channel Cinemax will show the documentary Tuesday. "She's not jaded about anything."
When apprised of the impression she makes, Belzberg looks blank, then uneasy. It's like saying she's not to be taken seriously. However, the movie she made is indeed serious. It was even nominated last year for a best documentary Oscar.
"Other people didn't think it [making the movie] was possible," she says, perhaps reflecting what people deceived by her looks thought she was capable of. "I thought it was possible."
"Children Underground" focuses on five children: Cristina, 16, a refugee from an orphanage and an insane asylum who both bullies and nurtures the younger children; Ana, 10, and Marian, her 8-year-old brother; Macarena, 14, so named because she loves to do the Macarena (she also loves to sniff Aurolac, an industrial paint used on radiators); and 12-year-old Mihai, who is arguably the most redeemable of the kids.
It took Belzberg a while to find these children. In fact, it took her a while to find a vocation. A graduate of the University of Colorado who initially worked in politics in California, Belzberg received a master's degree at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, where she was encouraged to pursue her interest in journalism and documentary filmmaking. She became intrigued by street children (some estimates say there are approximately 150 million of them worldwide) after reading articles about child prostitution in Africa, Southeast Asia, South America and Europe.
Her readings led her to Romania, where, during the Ceausescu regime, both contraception and abortions were banned and social spending plummeted, which overwhelmed families and pushed kids out into the streets (Cristina and Macarena are graduates of this system). A second wave of street children (including Ana, Marian and Mihai) accompanied the country's messy transition to a market economy.
Belzberg raised a little money and spent two weeks in Bucharest looking at the kids' plight, deciding that there was a story here yet to be told. "People had just an idea of why the kids were on the street, what their lives were like," she says. "I wanted to live with a group of kids and make the film in their eyes and only using their voices."
Which meant going back to the U.S., drumming up more funding and locating a good translator. With these elements in place, she then beat the bushes looking for the right subjects, finally stumbling across Ana at a day clinic. She was having a cast removed. Her leg had been broken by a policeman's baton.
"I immediately knew that she would be one of the children I would follow," Belzberg says. "I asked her if I could come with her to where she was staying--she was staying at Victoria Station--and she said yes. And then I met Cristina, who was the leader of the group at that time. I spent time with them and asked them if we could hang out with them. And we did, and we slowly introduced a camera."
For two months, Belzberg and her director of photography, Wolfgang Held, haunted the subway stations and streets of Bucharest from midmorning until 2 or 3 a.m. What they documented can, at times, be hard to handle--particularly the kids' cruelty to one another and their self-destructiveness.
"When I watched it there were tears streaming down my face," HBO's Abraham says. "It was incredibly hard to watch, but I kept watching it. The kids were so distinct and the personalities were so strong and I connected to them so strongly, it was worth the pain."
Needless to say, it was painful for Belzberg too. After all, she was actually there, which made her not just a passive or interested observer but also an actual participant. Which raises a question: At what point does the filmmaker put the camera aside and intercede?
"It's a very difficult decision to say, 'OK, I'm going to stand back and see this child be abused because I think it will be better in the long run,' " Belzberg says. "What you do see is a fraction of what the children go through. There are three scenes where children are physically abused. One child could be physically abused three or four times a day. And following each episode of abuse, a child will usually self-mutilate."