Filmmaker haunted by Romanian street tragedy

Honoring a novice documentarian for innovative filmmaking, the IFP’s 2001 Anthony Radziwill Documentary Achievement Award will be presented to producer-director Edet Belzberg for her feature film debut, “Children Underground.”

The work is a harrowing look at the lives of five homeless Romanian children living on the streets and in the subways of Bucharest. “Children Underground” screened initially at last year’s Independent Feature Project mart and was a Special Jury Prize recipient at Sundance 2001.

Reached at her upper Westside office, Belzberg was happy and honored that her work was being recognized. More satisfactory to Belzberg was the attention the film’s success has brought to the issue of homeless children worldwide. Working in the documentary realm marries her twin passions of storytelling and social activism.

“Nothing on film captured what I’d seen,” says Belzberg, who spent months following her subjects, eight to 20 hours a day.

She began work on her expose after reading a story about child prostitution in Southeast Asia. In her subsequent research, she learned about the ongoing problems in Eastern Europe and visited Romania. Belzberg shot more than 100 hours of raw footage as she, director of photography Wolfgang Held, and a translator developed a sense of the daily rhythm of the children’s desperate lives.

“I learned how little we communicated with words. Our relationship was not about speaking the language and it changed significantly. I started as a filmmaker but then my conviction grew to help them,” explains the helmer, who recently returned from a follow-up trip to Romania.

Conditions have worsened considerably since Belzberg shot “Children Underground.” Heroin is now prevalent among street children; when she made the doc, sniffing aurolac (an industrial paint) was the drug of choice.

“Children Underground’s” powerful images include the seeming indifference of Bucharest’s populace, unable and unwilling to aid the kids.

“They were referred to as aurolac kids and weren’t seen as human. Dirt and aurolac separated them from society,” says Belzberg. Poverty, ignorance and abuse also play roles, as the film makes clear.

As with most documentaries, the 3½-year filmmaking process included countless hours of fundraising. Belzberg’s production funds came from the Soros Documentary Fund; finishing coin was provided by Cinemax, which will air the doc in 2002.

An adjunct professor at NYU’s film school, Belzberg is currently in post-production on her second doc feature, “Gymnast,” which chronicles the lives of three American femme gymnasts as they prepared for the 2000 Olympic Games.

Doc filmmakers on the Gotham Awards’ jury include R.J. Culter, Bill Greaves, Deborah Hoffmann, Barbara Kopple, Frieda Lee Mock, Frances Reid, Jonathan Stack and Meredith White. The award memorializes Emmy-winning producer Anthony Radziwill, who died in 1999.

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