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Children Underground Reviews

In 1966, in a seriously misguided attempt to increase his nation's population, Romanian despot Nicolae Ceausescu banned all forms of birth control, including abortions for women with fewer than four children. Ceausescu's vision of a densely populated Romania came to pass — the birthrate nearly doubled — but the human cost of this policy in an economically unstable state was severe. Impoverished parents could no longer care for their growing families, orphanages quickly became overcrowded, and today countless children can be found living on the streets of Romania's major cities. Many are orphans, casualties of a state unable to care for them, while others have fled the poverty or abuse of their parents' homes. It's a situation that afflicts all of Romania, but American director Edet Belzberg's heartrending documentary focuses on a group of five children who call Bucharest's Piata Victoriei underground train station home. Old beyond their years, these kids — who range in age from eight to 16 — are able to describe the reality of their lives with a startlingly adult frankness, at the same time that they react to the world around them with the emotions of children. Belzberg and her cameraman, Wolfgang Held, maintain their distance as the kids panhandle, fight and sleep on cardboard boxes, either on the train platforms or the public parks above ground, watching dispassionately as the youngsters inhale Aurolac, a noxious silver paint with intoxicating fumes, from plastic bags. In a slightly uplifting coda, Belzberg and crew return a year later to find that a police sweep of the Victoriei has dispersed the children; some landed in state-funded homes, while others simply moved on to one of the many abandoned construction sites that dot the city, ironic symbols of a shining future that never arrived. Belzberg steers away from any discussion of the rampant sexual exploitation of these young children, or the fact that one of the biggest dangers they face are STDs, including AIDS, but the urban hell she presents is shattering enough. Homelessness is all too familiar to many inhabitants of the world's wealthiest cities, but rarely has the situation seemed so hopeless, or its victims so desperate.