Though the light
from the sun may shine nearly uniformly, when reflected on different people,
the shadows appear in distinctive shapes. Like sun rays, the techniques used in
both Children Underground (Belzberg), and Dark End of the Street
(Okazaki) -- share many similarities, yet the uniqueness of the two groups of
subjects spawn sufficiently different results. Both filmmakers, working in some degree with disenfranchised
youth, present hands-off
relationship with the subjects. In Dark End, this generally works to
raise awareness and elicit sympathy, or at least concern. When dealing with young children in The
Children Underground, however,
the filmmaker’s “detached” approach backfires – the viewer’s feelings of
sympathy and outrage at the situation are overwhelmed by confusion, questions and indignation
at the filmmaker’s techniques. To
illustrate this, I will discuss the apparent subject-filmmaker relationships,
in terms of their lack of interference, interview techniques,
narration/background info, and music.
LACK OF INTERFERENCE
The most obvious stylistic similarity between the two films is the detachment and non-interference of the filmmakers with the subjects. For Okazaki this works to parallel the feelings of loneliness and isolation that the heroin addicts express. As Jake’s AIDS progresses he says, “I’m really, really lonely . . . “. While at points, the viewer wants the filmmaker to “step in” and be a friend, one realizes that the subjects are adults, or nearly so, and though many faced tragic circumstances, the aid the filmmaker is providing is to tell their story. Because he is documenting criminal activities, without apparent judgment, he is already offering more support than many of the addicts have. In Children Underground, however, the lack of interference itself strikes the viewer as bordering on criminal, or at least exploitive, and detracts from the story being told. At one point Macarena is crying because she’s so hungry. To shut her up, a shopkeeper starts beating her, kicking her as she cries for food. The viewer, through Belzberg’s camera, is witness to a 14 year old orphan lying on the ground of a cold subway station kicked as she cries for food. This is sickening to watch, more so because a well-fed, relatively well-off person stands behind the camera and watches.
A note by Belzberg after the film confirmed that she did not interfere because she thought that helping those five kids would somehow detract from her message and therefore hurt the thousands of other street kids. This thinking is distorted – first, it is overestimating the impact of her work -- as if, if she presented an “objective” view of the problems, they will automatically gain succor. She’s essentially using these kids as sacrificial lambs for a “greater good” which may not come (of course she did not cause their problems, but nevertheless presents them as expendable). Secondly, if she intervened, the viewer would be more, not less inspired—Born into Brothels (Brisky) is an example whereby the filmmaker shows her struggles to help the kids. This not only inspires, but also instructs the viewer as to how someone could help. Belzberg, unlike Brisky gives no such guidance, but instead gives unofficial permission for passivity. It’s as if she wants her nominations so badly that she didn’t want to “ruin” her story by assisting the kids. Would giving Macarena some bread or a hug changed their whole situation? In the name of reciprocity alone she owed them at least some warm clothes and food, if not a more active role in getting them off the streets.
Both films share similar interview styles. Generally the subjects are documented “in action” but both have separate, seated interviews. Generally the filmmaker’s presence is downplayed, with occasional exceptions. In Dark End, off-camera questions about Jessica’s grandfather (who raped her when she was 5) are heard. Because the questioning does not get more pushy or probing, it strikes the viewer as empathetic rather than transgressive. In another scene, the cameraman gasps when Tracy’s friend reveals her bruised muscles. These subtleties serve to humanize the film crew, and add to the movie. In Children, on the hand, Belzberg’s formalized interviews further set her up as exploitive, and detract from the story. While the filmmaker won’t feed starving children or stop a distressed child from cutting himself, she can set them up in clean, quiet, well-lit rooms with good acoustics and attach lapel mics, roll her cameras, and ask personal questions -- and that’s not “interference”? Then, after she has taken her information she sends them back into the street? The children’s age and the desperation of their situation yield the inconsistency between her filming and interview techniques hypocritical. It’s as if she’s bought into the twisted thinking that’s perpetrating the problem – forgetting that these are children.
In both films the subjects seem fairly oblivious to the camera. Though this could reflect their drug affected states, it generally serves to underscore the prevalence of the problems in both situations, as represented by the un-self conscious presentation of criminal and other “underground” activities,. Mihai occasionally hams it up for the camera, and at one point Macarena, her face covered with silver paint, stares long into the lens, which refuses to leave her haunted eyes. In Dark End they speak more directly to the camera, shooting up to show the camera their veins. Jake slams he door on the camera once. For the most part, however, as Christine hits off an intruder, or uses a stick to whack the kids, or heroin addicts argue with their lovers – they seem to not notice the camera . At first it’s shocking that kids wouldn’t be self-conscious about what is captured. But of course the kids have no reputation to lose if others see them living in the streets. The heroin addicts themselves are so depressed and often suicidal they too have little to lose, and only to gain by presenting their stories to the world. In a society where no one bats and eye as 8 yr. Old Marian buys paint, he would hardly fear a camera lens. Nor does the cinematographer represent an authority figure who would reprimand violence – the film crew didn’t intervene to protect the kids, so why would they step in to stop the kids from hurting others? This lack of self-consciousness is a result, therefore of both filmmaker’s detached approaches, as well as the nature of their subjects’ situations.
Neither film has a narrator, and instead both use text to introduce the 5 subjects and provide other information important to the plot. Despite the similarities, the effect differs profoundly on the films. In Children Underground, the viewer sees scrolling text in the beginning which briefly explains the background of Croatia's policy of over-reproduction. This information is wholly insufficient for the (non-Croatian) viewer to understand the complexity of the problem (As will be discussed, it could be Belzberg’s intent to leave the viewer confused, and wanting details, because the situation is complex, and to pretend otherwise would be false. However, after the movie she lists aid organizations, which she suggests the viewer donate to – in order to have the confidence to do that, the viewer must have a basic understanding of what viable solutions). Though Dark End gives equally little information on the background of the problem, laws regarding heroin, etc., the filmmaker doesn’t pretend he’s going to solve the problems. Further, the average American audience has a greater basic understanding of the cultures in the US than of those in Croatia. The title cards such as “each year only 1% of addicts can kick the habit” provide some interesting information, whereas when Children presents vague text explaining, for example, that the kids were kicked out of the subway by a government mandate, the viewer is still confused and wants more information.
The most important reason that narration is needed in Children but not in Dark End is that in the latter, the subjects are much older and can speak articulately for themselves – they act a narrators. Tracy, for example, gives articulate explanations of not wanting her mom to enable her, and of her vanishing dreams of having a family. It would be insulting and unnecessary for Okazaki to use narration when Oreo can say for himself that he doesn’t want pity, honestly describe his love for his girlfriend, and his work as a prostitute since age 14. Belzberg, on the other hand makes the mistake of again treating her subjects like adults (able to speak for themselves, choose their own fate, etc,. -- ironically paralleling the dismissive attitude of affluent subway riders). Though Christine makes an articulate narrator, discussing her beliefs on God, drawing coherent relationships between her childhood treatment and current state, the others --with the occasional exception of Mihai -- are too young or decapitated to explain much. When asked why she left her family, Ana, for says “because I didn’t like it” – this is almost a tease, giving the viewer just enough information to be frustrated.
Along with having age-related heightened articulation, the kids in Dark End “work” as narrators because they are more aware of the tragedy of their situation (both due to their age and the relative lack of drugs and poverty in the US as compared to Croatia). Jake explains that no one cares about junkies, and that once he got HIV his friends disappeared. Oreo explains that he needs to get clean before he gets married- demonstrating awareness of his problems which enables the viewer to relate to him. With the exception of Mihai, who wants a future and education, the other children seem to accept their fate as normal, if not ideal. This is in fact corroborated by the aid agency that explains kids get addicted to the street. Without a narrator to explain the underlying factors, the viewer is left frustrated at the normalcy and societal acceptance to let the children accept their own fate. Again, the problem is not the Belzberg presents this state of acceptance, its that by her lack of any direct voice or stance she seems to be condoning the situation.
The use of music is the biggest difference in style between the filmmakers, and represents Okazaki’s largest digression from his normally less-visible techniques. The lack of music in Children Underground furthers the perception of the children being alone, and the film being a cold portrait thereof. In this case, Belzberg is successful because the viewer is not guided at all, not comforted by music leading one’s emotions. As the film starts with shots of Ana and Marian sleeping in the subway, interlaced with loud, diegetic sounds of subway, people rushing through, etc, the sense of invisibility of the filmmaker is exaggerated without music. This lack of music is consistent with the rest of the film (with the exception of formalized interviews), and unlike lack of narration, does not detract from the film because it’s not crucial to the viewer’s understanding of the situation.
In Dark End, on the other hand, Okazaki uses lyrical music gratuitously, and inconsistently with his otherwise understated style. Most of the film treats both the subjects and audience as intelligent and capable of understanding each other without much guidance. The contrast between no narrator and this didactic music startles the viewer. When Oreo is arrested for stealing $20 the lyrics of “You don’t know who you are . . . “ underscore a stylized montage of Oreo skating and in court. When Jessica, who is at the time clean and sober and living with a boyfriend, explains her last overdose, and that she’ll die if she does it again, the viewer hears -- “I’m scared to leave the house, I’m scared to go to sleep” – she had been raped by her grandfather and then worked as a prostitute and the music is unnecessary to elicit a sense of isolation. Other uses of music, for example, “I was lost now I’m found . . . ” during the needle exchange program don’t really make sense, and seem overly stylized given the rest of the film. The final song “Dark end of the street,” though unnecessary, shows that Okazaki is taking a stance, has understanding of his subject’s situation – a trait wholly lacking and more necessary in Children Underground.
CHAOS AND CONFUSION
The style and subject matter of both films elicit feelings of confusion and spiraling despair in the viewer. Both set up a crazy, maddening sense whereby the situations just get progressively worse, with false starts, stories told in the present, as they unfold, the interviews are not retrospectives that would reassure us that things turn out all right. In Dark End this unraveling works because the viewer at least understands what’s happening, it is rational if not understandable. Tracy for example repeatedly asks, “What am I gonna do?” [once she’s out of jail]. The viewer learns she succumbs to heroin within 8 hours of her release. The viewer wanted her to stay clean, and feels despair as she falls again and again. Jessica is arrested for prostitution and is HIV positive and says, “I don’t give a fuck” . . . “I don’t have time to care for anybody else”. The viewer might not agree with these decisions, but at least they are understood given the already unstable circumstances.
In Children Underground on the other hand, opinions of children and adults are all presented in an increasingly maddening array of contradictions and confusion. The children are victims and too young to fully understand the situation. Their parents too are not believable. Ana’s stepfather, whom she says does not hurt her, starts detailing how he knows she’s a virgin, and his hope that she stay in Bucharest. Mihai’s father pleads innocence but then describes how he chained Mihai around the neck. The children and parents’ perspectives are valid and this confusion, though uncomfortable adds to the film, but cannot stand alone. In order for the viewer to take something away from the film it needs to be supplemented with reliable expert witnesses . As mentioned, Belzberg includes with her movie a list of aid orgs for the viewers to support. In her film, however, with the exception of one children’s advocate, even the social workers are questionable – in the train one tries to guilt-trip Mihai into staying with his parents for example. The absurdity arises when Ana and Marian are at home and the 8 and 10 year-olds are given the choice of living with potentially unstable parents or sleeping on concrete in Bucharest. The problem therefore of presenting very few reliable characters is that the viewer is left confused and frustrated without faith that there is any way to help the kids –ostensibly the goal of the filmmaker.
I was surprised to find myself crying during Dark End, but only angry and frustrated in Children Underground. Because the nature of both are equally tragic, I discovered that it was the filmmaker techniques, rather than the subject matter which elicited these responses. Now when I’m in San Francisco I see the junkies in a new light, and I’ve signed up for some street outreach programs, knowing that giving sandwiches will not solve the problem, but that a smile and nice gesture is a step in the right direction. I have not, however done more research on the children in Romania. Because I’m normally much more interested in Children’s issues, than drug-related ones, this is surprising, and I attribute it to my frustration from the film.