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PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: moral responsibility, poverty

CHARACTERS: Cristina (mean teenage girl with shaved head), Ana (10 sister of Marian), Marian (8 year old brother of Ana), Macarena (14 year old girl addicted to sniffing paint), Mihai (boy who is afraid of his father)

SYNOPSIS: Edet Belzberg’s Academy Award nominated documentary follows the lives of five homeless Romanian children who live in a Bucharest subway. They are among the 20,000 unwanted children who were born as a result of a social policy forged by former communist leader Nicolae Ceaucescu that outlawed contraception and abortion in an effort to increase his nation’s work force. The film depicts the difficult lives that the children lead, and the often unsuccessful efforts of social organizations to return the children to their homes, enroll them in school, or place them in orphanages.



1. Abortion rights advocates argue that access to abortion is a necessary social tool for preventing unwanted children. Does the film strengthen this position – at least from the perspective of Romanians during this time period?

2. Pedestrians in Bucharest pass right by homeless children who are sniffing paint, and are completely unaffected by what the children are doing. What is the pedestrians’ level of responsibility?

3. Macarena says the following: “People give me money for food but I buy paint, because if I get one bottle I’m no longer hungry. It’s like paradise! You dream that you eat, and I can’t give it up.” With little prospect of ever getting out of her situation, is her choice a reasonable one?

4. In one scene, a worker in the subway kicks Macarena who is lying on the ground, trying to get her to leave. In another Cristina hits a deranged homeless woman with a stick, trying to get her to leave. In another 10 year old Ana inhales paint fumes. What’s the filmmakers’ responsibility as they’re filming these events?

5. Ana makes it clear that she prefers living on the street to living at home. Mihai stated that the best thing he likes about living on the street is “to live free.” Many adult homeless people say the same thing. What kind of freedoms does this give them, and do these outweigh the hardships?

6. Social welfare organizations have restricted resources. The Heart to Hand day clinic for homeless children (one of two in two in Bucharest) provides basic medical care to street children, but not housing. One shelter has only ten beds and requires that the children they take in must be capable of rehabilitation. One worker states that the children must be removed from the street in a matter of weeks or months, otherwise “they get hooked on the street.” Should the social welfare organizations be doing more?

7. In one scene Cristina hits a homeless boy with a stick for stealing. Is there any justification for the authoritarian and sometimes violent role that she assumes over the others in her group?

8. The school systems require identification documents for students to enroll, which are difficult for homeless children to obtain. Why might justify the school systems’ rigid enrollment requirements?

9. A social worker asks Mihai, “And why did you leave home,” to which he replied “My parents were beating me.” The social worker responded, “All children get a beating! I beat my children too, you know. You had to leave because of that?” How bad must a beating get before a young child is justified in running away from home?

10. Mihai’s father states that he once chained Mihai by the neck to a radiator to keep him from running away, but he escaped nonetheless. Ultimately the father attributed the situation to Mihai’s mental problems. To what extent might this absolve Mihai’s parents of responsibility?

11. Ana throws a tantrum when she and her friends arrive at the wrong park. A pedestrian tries unsuccessfully to calm the children down. Mihai then begins cutting himself out of frustration with Ana terrorizing him. What responsibility do the pedestrians have in this situation?

12. Ana’s mother says that Ana left home because of poverty; since the mother hand no money, she couldn’t afford the train ticket to go find Ana. Ana’s step father said that he spent four years with Ana and it was torture. She cut her arms. Marian, he said, wet his bed. To what extent might any of this absolve the Ana’s and Marian’s parents of responsibility?

13. Ana’s mother says that under the communist government she had a regular job. Now under a capitalist system, though, she’s laid off and her factory doesn’t care that she has children to support. To what extent is the capitalist system to blame?

14. Ana’s mother gives her a choice to stay at home or return to Bucharest and live on the street. Ana chooses to return to Bucharest with her younger brother.

15. Macarena states that the police threatened to shoot her – presumably to keep her from sleeping at a construction site. What is the police’s responsibility towards the homeless children, and how should they balance that against the interests of the property owners?


Children Underground offers a mind-blowing exploration of the relationship between poverty and moral responsibility. The film accomplishes this in a way that is thoroughly compelling. Whether one subscribes to the emotivist view that all moral statements are simply emotional expressions, one must admit that within the study of ethics (especially applied ethics) emotional appeals play such an influential role that their presence is often welcome – or at least tolerated. As such, Children Underground tugs at the audience's heartstrings, winning much sympathy in the process. Though many would deny that the well-off have any moral responsibility towards those who are less fortunate and "do not want to be helped," there are several instances in the film in which its subjects are portrayed to be exactly that; yet, it would be quite surprising to find someone who would deny that these children are not worthy of support. The film also raises an interesting question for documentarians: at what point is the crew of such a film required to interfere on behalf of its subjects' wellbeing? This film in particular raises the question in a unique way, because to answer this question one must weigh the present suffering of the subjects with the potential future good caused by the heightened level of awareness the film spreads. For example, though all of the subjects of Children Underground routinely suffer on screen, one was adopted by a well-off couple as a direct result of the film. This makes for an interesting and difficult use of the utilitarian calculus. -- Frezno Smooth

Children Underground, a 2001 documentary by Edet Belzberg, details the lives of a group of homeless children living in a Bucharest subway in Romania. The large numbers of homeless children in Romania is due a social policy that outlawed contraception and abortion, which was put forth by former-communist leader Nicolae Ceaucescu. In this film Belzberg succeeded in going where society does not usually go to show viewers painfully cruel lives of these young children. This movie tackles a variety of issues ranging from abortion rights to the level of responsibility pedestrians have toward homeless children. Ceaucescu, outlawing abortion as a means to produce a larger work force, consequently created a massive number (around twenty thousand) of children that parents did not want and were not able to care for after Ceaucescu’s regime came to an end. The children live in an underground subway system until the police come and force them to leave towards the end of the movie. The children form mini-societies where they each fulfill a niche, or their role in the group. The children also huff paint as a way to stay disconnected from the reality of their tragic and grotesque situation. However, this does seem to be a fairly efficient way to control the children of the underground because the children do not seem to be able to realize exactly how horrible the situation they are in is. This movie focuses a lot on the responsibility of the pedestrians that pass by and beat the homeless children. Do these people have any moral responsibility toward the children? The movie does provide a sure answer. Overall, I would give the movie a six on a scale of ten for its ability to potentially awaken some people to the desperate situation of the children. -- Scuba-nator

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