Like a part of the social scenery of our city we are accustomed to the daily sight of street children, in various places, without being either surprised or hurt by their condition. Those children who live on the squares, in bus terminals and subway stations are, generally speaking, the result of overpopulation, family disintegration and poverty.
On the subject of children living on the fringes of our society, the Mexican cinema provides us with a distinguished precedent: Los olvidados by Luis Bunuel, a film that, in 1950, caused a political scandal by exposing life in the pockets of misery of the capital. Bunuel’s film was awarded the prize for direction at the Cannes Film Festival. Just over fifty years later the filmmaker Eva Aridjis recaptures the theme of child marginalization in Mexico City. Her full-length feature, Ninos de la calle, reveals another side of this problem that seems to get worse day by day. After several months of filming, and interviewing dozens of children in shelters and meeting places, Aridjis selected four characters, two from Plaza de la Solidaridad, two from San Cosme: the charismatic 11 year old Marcos; the pretty girl Erika, who had been raped by five policeman (“They destroyed my dreams”, she shouts in the film); the enigmatic Antonio el rata, from Vera Cruz (his delicate facial features are like a Totonac sculpture) and the gentle Juan, whose physical decline we witness all the way through, until the dramatic and ceremonial adios.
One original feature of the film is that it presents us with the circumstances of the mothers, who, in their indigence and their single room shacks in Chalco or Ecatepec, are as poor, or even poorer, than their children living on the street. Marcos’ mother, originally from Oaxaca, cannot read or write, nor does she know the city. She is so lost that if she leaves her house she cannot find her way back. What is so pitiful is that she is incapable of going to look for her wayward child, let alone understanding or satisfying his needs. Abused by an alcoholic and unemployed husband who beats her, she lives in Chalco with her three other children and several homeless dogs, who follow the parents around as well as the children.
So, it is no wonder that in this environment of family breakdown, the critical moment for the child is when he or she decides to leave the family, with no money, no experience, and venture into this mega-city that destroys men and children alike, whether they come from the city or countryside. From this time on, the infant fugitive is exposed to every kind of abuse and violation at the hands of adults (whether police or civilians) who take advantage of his or her vulnerability. Because, living on the street is merely a matter of sleeping outdoors; it is also being defenseless, listening to the never ceasing traffic, and staying exposed to every type of human being who might abuse or, in some cases, help them.
One of Eva Aridjis’s achievements in this film is that the children open up to her. Usually they are mistrustful of strangers and adults for fear of being tricked or abused; scared of being sent to institutions where they will be confined and detoxified, often violently. It is surprising to see how Eva Aridjis is able to intimately enter into their lives, their daily routines, their family situations. Doubtless the key to this is her sincerity, the honesty and respect with which she treated the children during the preparation, and then again, after shooting the picture.
The reason for this trust is that Eva is able to approach the children without being repelled. After all some of them are so filthy, lousy or drugged that, when people see them, they keep their distance. And others, when begging in the squares or commercial establishments, appear suspicious and look like potential thieves. Eva wins their confidence by giving them clothes, sneakers, and even tents as protection against the winter nights. But, above all, she treats them like human beings.
Another distinguishing feature of the documentary is the presence of the street dogs. They are always with the children, sharing their poverty and marginalization. They roam, ownerless and hungry, keeping them company under the open sky. It is moving to watch, in some scenes, those raggedy kids feeding the dogs or giving them water from their hands. The poetic eye of the filmaker captures them, not only where they live, but also in their meeting places, and even in their family houses, where the dogs are the first to come out to welcome these prodigal urban children. Amidst the defenselessness of the children are also people who would seem to help them. And sometimes to save them! One Friday at midnight, there is a scene in the Marcos episode that could be called surrealist, or an illuminating form of dark humor. Out of a bus from Tlahuac alights a group of young people, volunteers from the Prince of Peace church. They have come to evangelize the children of Plaza de la Solidaridad. So, after feeding them, praying for their rehabilitation, and begging them to go back to their homes (each volunteer takes one of the children aside), the visitors begin dancing to the accompaniment of religious songs from a sound machine. While the children dance and inhale solvents, we watch the dogs sprawled on the ground.
“The value of the film Ninos de la calle by Eva Aridjis is that it shows the reality as it is, as opposed to other films that, through sensationalism or superficiality, either over dramatize the children’s situation or misrepresent it,” said Doctor Ricardo Camacho, Director of Casa Alianza, a shelter and medical center for street children, during a question/answer session after the film’s screening at the Cineteca Nacional. The audience was impressed by the film and turned the discussion into a collective psychotherapy session on the social and moral problem we face with 30-50 thousand street children in the Metropolitan area.
Hector Garcia, a photographer and now the dean of photography in Mexico since the death of Manuel Alvarez Bravo, praised the visual quality of the picture. He was also disturbed by the destructive consequences of the solvents, like glue, which the street children inhale. Others pop pills or smoke crack.
“I believe the strongest reaction to the film was the silence,” wrote Yolanda Alaniz. “It is hard to talk when you are moved. As an anthropologist I can tell you that your work is representative of a work of ethnology. That is to say it is a true representation free from interpretation. You reveal the reality, and the way it is expressed. For those of us who have seen the documentary the children on the street now appear to us as human beings, with all their suffering and deprivation.”
Capital police evicted the children fron San Cosme, and confiscated the presents Eva Aridjis had given them during the filming, the excuse being that they were conducting a campaign to clean up the area. Antonio, el rata, and other members of the group moved to around the Metro Hidalgo subway. In July 2002, the group in Plaza de la Solidaridad was evicted because of the visit of Pope Paul II, and the impending inauguration of the Sheraton Hotel opposite the Plaza. Functionaries of the city government dispersed the group into different shelters. With the passage of time, the film will be the only record that Marcos, Erika, el Rata and Juan once had the street as their terrible home. The great achievement of the filmaker is that, through a series of images, she turned these children into memorable personalities. Quite an achievement, since every narrator knows that the most difficult part of the creative process is to bring characters to life through the telling of their own stories.
Because it is a sincere and honest film, Ninos de la calle will, from now on, change the way we perceive those unfortunate children who share, with us, the urban space.