Christina, left, with some of the children in Belzberg's film, " Children Underground," dresses like a boy to survive the streets of Bucharest.
Edet Belzberg, SIPA '97, didn't get much sleep the night before the 74th Academy Award nominations were announced. Though her first feature documentary film, "Children Underground," had received the Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize two months earlier and enjoyed a successful year of film festival honors and conference screenings, Belzberg was understandably nervous about the possibility of Oscar recognition.
When she got up the next morning and headed to her computer, she couldn't get onto the website -- perhaps because it was overloaded with others trying to do the same -- so she still did not know if her film's title was on the list of nominations. No pressure.
Then the phone started ringing and it hasn't stopped since. Her nerves have jumped between elation and shock, and life for the 32-year-old Los Angles native has picked up steam since the nomination.
"My phone calls get returned a lot faster now, a lot faster than I ever imagined," Belzberg said. The calls are for more screenings at more film festivals or human rights conferences, meetings with funders or editors, interviews with journalists, or well wishes from friends and colleagues. Belzberg sees each as an opportunity to advance her passion for social justice with her love for storytelling through film.
"It's an incredible honor that the film is receiving such recognition, but what I hope is it will do some good on behalf of street children in Romania," Belzberg said referring to the subject of her documentary.
Belzberg spent the past four years working on "Children Underground" which follows five street children through the streets of Bucharest, Romania, and introduces audiences to a "family" of orphaned, abandoned or runaway children who live in a subway station. It intimately portrays the children begging or stealing food or sniffing a toxic silver paint inhalant called Aurolac, anything to survive the horrific conditions created by both the policies of former communist leader Nicolae Ceaucescu and the transition to a market economy that left thousands of children homeless in the nation's cities.
What resulted of Belzberg's gutsy project is a dramatic blend of investigative journalism, human rights advocacy and cinematic savvy that left audiences at dozens of film festivals last year both disturbed and engaged.
Belzberg initially got the idea for the film by reading an article about street children in Africa, South East Asia and Romania. That propelled her to begin researching the subject. She then took a reconnaissance trip to Bucharest where she lived with a group of children for almost two weeks.
"Very quickly it became clear that nothing of what I'd read or seen on film had fully captured what these children were living through," Belzberg says. "The idea for the film came out of the belief that a full-length documentary would allow a truer picture of the children's lives to emerge. An hour or 90 minutes would bring people into the center of the children's world for more than a few minutes on a news show, and also allow the characters to be portrayed as individuals, rather than symbols of a social problem."
So Belzberg used the skills she'd acquired through her School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) training and in documentary and reporting classes in the School of Journalism. She spent the next two months in Bucharest filming the children in grueling 18-20 hour days.
"The chaos of the children's lives was relentless," Belzberg recalls. "Sometimes at night violent intruders came in from other subway stations. Predators came looking to trade candy for sex, and general misery and desperation kept the children awake." Belzberg, also notes, however, that "night was one of the only times when the children felt free to be children, playing games on the empty subway platforms and street."
Throughout the filming, Belzberg became more and more convinced that a full-length documentary could provide more for long-term solutions than any immediate intervention she could offer the children.
At the end of the two-month shoot, Belzberg and her team realized that "our utter exhaustion [was] what the children experience constantly. Back in the States, the director of photography discovered that he had contracted tuberculosis, which prevented him from working for the next six months. I returned with only lice and scabies."
Such conditions greatly contrast the glamour of the Academy Awards, but Belzberg is hoping the film will now have more opportunities to increase awareness and encourage response.
Consequently, Belzberg is hard at work planning several screenings that can also serve as fundraisers for organizations which help street children -- many of which are listed as resource links on her website. Plans are even underway to include a fund-raising screening for Child Hope International at Columbia in June.
In the meantime, except for a trip to the Oscars ceremony March 24, Belzberg has already begun working on her next documentary, one which follows the lives of U.S. gymnasts as they prepare for the Olympics.
"I'll be making films for a very long time," Belzberg said. "There's nothing else I could imagine myself doing."