“I want good to happen to me, not evil,” explains 12-year-old Mihai, one of five homeless children profiled in Edet Belzberg’s haunting documentary Children Underground. He smokes with disarming grace; his candor is both adorable and wrenching. Sometimes he’s serious, sometimes silly. And sometimes he cuts himself, all along his arm.
Children Underground is a horror story, told with Dickensian compassion, permeating outrage, and little hope. Mihai belongs to a group of runaways (led by the stick-wielding, crew-cut Cristina, 16) whose base camp is Bucharest’s Piata Victoriei subway station. Victory is hardly the issue: Here, Belzberg’s subjects bunk down on cardboard, cadge spare change, get thrashed by irate adults (or the rule-enforcing Cristina), and sniff a toxic silver paint with the sinister name Aurolac. It is a vision of hell as circular and dreadful as anything in Dante, with the difference that its damned are children. Essentially victims of circumstance, some of the inhabitants have nevertheless internalized the sense of sin: Mihai says he “did an evil thing” by leaving home (though his father beat him), and drifts off into a discussion of last things; Cristina confesses she’s been “such a devil” (though she was tortured in an orphanage).
Their visible tormentor is Aurolac, which they buy from witting but unconcerned vendors and pour into bags for inhalation; clamped over their faces, the plastic pulses like demonic, external lungs, the parasitic given physical form. Macarena, 14, is the most abject addict, spending what handouts she gets on paint rather than food (“It’s like paradise! You dream that you eat”), her face bearded with silver flakes.
But the phantom hand, the filmmakers assert, is Romania’s late dictator, Nicolai Ceausescu—specifically, his plan to increase the labor force by banning abortion and contraception. (In a painful irony, conscientious Mihai exhibits a stubborn work ethic, picking up odd jobs rather than begging.) Despite this logical explanation for the country’s 20,000 street children, it’s the parents themselves who appear unforgivable. Those that the filmmakers (and the almost preternaturally beautiful social workers) track down are shameless in shifting blame, vociferous in their self-justification. In the case of 10-year-old Ana (by turns mature and fitful, and unfailingly maternal to the brother she has whisked away from home), her stepfather is the clear source of her travails: Within a few minutes of talk, he comes off as a blowhard and a likely molester. Thankful that Ana is at least still a virgin, he sputters when asked how he could possibly know.
Children Underground is a call to action framed as a perfect nightmare. (Shot mostly in color, it contains two sequences that unfold in unsparing black and white—an acknowledgment of the filmmakers’ discomfort in aestheticizing the kids’ stories.) Even the tentative rehabilitation that some of the runaways find will prove futile—the director’s follow-up notes in the press materials cite recidivism, pregnancy, and heroin. Macarena, delusional from cold and Aurolac, is already a lost cause. “I’m not from this country,” she insists. An orphan who never knew her parents, she claims to have a twin sister, “also Macarena,” who is studying at the local high school, much loved by all her teachers.
The Endurance lucidly relates Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition to cross the Antarctic continent by foot. Churchill had dismissed it as a “sterile quest,” but the journey was fecund in its own harrowing way: Every step generated fresh hells. Shackleton’s ship never reached the mainland, paralyzed by pack ice; as the white mass crushed the timbers and spun the crew away from their goal like a malevolent carousel, the mission soon became nothing more complicated than survival.
Antarctica was the world’s last tabula rasa, a locus for the most baroque imaginings (from Poe to Lovecraft, hollow-earth to Atlantean theories), but contact has made patent its beauties and dangers. Still enigmatic is the figure of Shackleton himself. The film conveys his remarkable leadership without explaining (beyond a because-it’s-there romanticism) what would compel such a journey in the first place. More mysterious still was why he returned in 1922, with no clear end in sight; upon reaching South Georgia Island, he suffered a heart attack and died.
That year saw publication of The Waste Land, Eliot’s modernist epic of alienation, part of which (the passage beginning “Who is the third who walks always beside you?”) was inspired by Shackleton’s initial desperate trek across the polar desolation of South Georgia. In a setting that invokes the icy final ring of the Inferno, Shackleton and two others marched a day and a half across the island’s treacherous terra incognita to reach the supply station on the far side; two of the men hallucinated that the party contained one more person. A precursor of Macarena’s twin in Bucharest, it was something like an angel of mercy in the midst of that inhuman geography.