Edet Belzberg’s documentary Children Underground subtly indicts the homeless plight of Romanian youth on Ceausescu’s ignorant politics. Belzberg unflinchingly cuts back and forth between the struggles of her child urchins and an adult world consumed by flagging ideals. Mihai, Marian, his sister Ana, Christina and Macarena are as addicted to life on the streets as they are to the Aurolac paint cans they use to get high with. This tragic cinematic wail evokes a devastated Romania that unwittingly fell prey to the once-strong Ceausescu regime, which banned abortions and contraceptive devices during its failed grasp at a strong market economy.
Macarena, named after the dance she oftentimes mimics, is the film’s ghostliest child. Her paint-huffing is so excessive that she always has Aurolac spots on her mouth and clothes. More tragic is the fact that she is painfully aware of the hopelessness of her situation—at 14, she believes she is too old to be saved and cries mercifully when an English schoolteacher takes Ana and Marian to a day clinic for clothes. Throughout Children Underground, Macarena seemingly floats in and out of consciousness. Tears stream down her cheek as she looks at the world around her, seemingly begging for a little human contact. She’s so conscious of her not-being that she finds it difficult to comprehend that she once came into the world via a woman’s loins.
Twelve-year-old Doe-eyed Mihai’s love for poetry and the freedom of the streets outweighs his love for an education. Though he ran away from an abusive father, he nonetheless feels guilty for having spiritually and physically abandoned his family. There’s no greater horror here than the sight of the otherwise cheerful Mihai suddenly breaking out into a self-mutilating stupor, cutting his arm with a blade as a means of making Ana suffer for getting them lost inside a city park. A trip to Mihai’s home is particularly gruesome—his parents acknowledge that they would rather have their children starve than offer them a chance at salvation via the caring hands of the city’s social workers.
Children Underground’s evocation of adult shame and denial is no more ironic than in the spiritless squalor of Ana and Marian’s home. Not unlike Mihai’s father, their stepfather seemingly lies to the camera. Though he says he doesn’t hurt his children, his sudden bursts of anger suggest otherwise. The ultimate tragedy here is that Ceausescu’s legacy has created a Romania now populated by emotional cripples seemingly complacent with their struggles. Ana and Marian’s stepfather understands why his stepchildren continue to run (there is simply no food to sustain them) though their mother still longs for the days of Ceausescu. It’s difficult to watch Children Underground and not think about how these lives could have been saved if mothers had the luxury of aborting their pregnancies.
Unfortunately, the digital transfer Edet Belzberg's remarkable Children Underground receives on this DVD edition of the film leaves plenty to be desired. Edge enhancement is noticeable throughout while some of the film's interior sequences have the blotchy look of a second or third-generation video. The English 2.0 Dolby Digital track is perfectly serviceable; any rough spots can be attributed completely to the original shooting and not the DVD transfer.
Sadly, no director's commentary or video footage was recorded for the features included on the Children Underground DVD but there's a ray of hope to be found within the text of two sections. Belzberg reveals in her filmmaker statement the emotional hardship she faced while recording the film's Romanian youth getting high on Aurolac paint. A "Where Are They Now" update section details that life hasn't gotten much better for Macarena but that the release of the film was single-handedly responsible for liberating Mihai. Also included is a resource guide to organizations and charities and filmmaker and additional crew biographies.
Even at its weakest, the disc’s perfectly serviceable look and sound can’t detract from the power of this devastating humanitarian effort.