Western Europeans cannot get enough of Romanian poverty. In photos. In news. In features. In TV shows. The appetite is immense.
It has become the biggest tourist attraction in the country. Foreigners now plan minibreaks here, hoping for three-day fix of extreme poverty – in the yard of a four-storey slum in Bucharest or in blocks at the edge of any major town, they are hit in the face – Bang! – a panorama of depravity – filth, dogs, barefoot children, bonfires, cauldrons of steaming soup, all draped with washing lines of drying clothes.
Timidly, they take out their cameras and phones to capture what they learned to look for in the only photography class they ever took – contrasts and extremes!
Snap! – a child grinning in a yard full of mud – Snap! – a pig in a bathtub – Brilliant! Snap! – a village drunk lying next to a sign that says something they don’t understand, but it’s probably funny! – Snap!
But they need anecdotes too. They need to tell their friends what a laugh they had with these poor and miserable Romanians. Photos aren’t enough now. People need stories.
So, helped by a multilingual Romanian companion, they poke a Roma woman in flowery clothes, asking her: ‘Are you a witch? Curse me, ‘gypsy’, go on curse me, here’s a hundred dollars, curse me, won’t you? I need something to tell my mates when I get home.’
Romania is a poor country. Especially in the countryside. And in large pockets of cities. This becomes a profitable enterprise for foreign journalists and film-makers – and the locals who do all the work for them.
These Germans, French, Dutch or English come with a shopping list for their Romanian fixers.
First they need either 1. a tumbledown shanty-hut with dogs, pigs, chickens and a roof made out of an advertising poster for Coca Cola or Snickers or 2. a crappy Communist block preferably having just suffered an act of arson and/or earthquake damage.
Maybe the village doesn’t appear on a map! Crazy! Maybe the village is cursed! Even better! Sick children, bring it on! Nuns! Must have nuns! Orphans. What do you mean there were no orphans? Abandoned children, then, let’s call them, orphans!
It is said that in the Romanian countryside, there are only there sources of cash – the church, making a lethal plum brandy called Tuica and German documentary film crews.
But why Romania? Other countries are poor. England is poor. England has growing poverty. Millions are on on such low incomes, they don’t even need to pay tax. The same number are dependent on food handouts from charities – the UK has poverty, loads of poverty – more poverty than France and Germany, but Romanian poverty is so much more picturesque.
People’s faces are dirtier, the alcoholics are smellier, the locations are more dramatic, the children are ill, thin and friendly – it’s where Totalitarianism clashes with the Middle Ages. Where 1984 meets Game of Thrones.
It arouses a mix of pity and awe in westerners – in other words – they look at poor Romanians and say ‘How can you live like this?’ and ‘Isn’t it cool that you live like this!’
Is this wrong? I don’t know. No one is lying. No one is building dilapidated villages as sets for film crews.
Does it paint a biased picture of Romania? Romania is poor. Very poor. And the poorest suffer more due to their failure to access good education and medical care. They stumble before managing to catch on to the first rung of the career ladder – creating a cycle of poverty which is not coming to a standstill.
Can Romania do anything to redress the balance?
One of the most pathetic moments in Romanian public life recently was when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister Victor Ponta complained to UK TV’s Channel 4 about their television programme ‘The Romanians are Coming’.
The show tried to understand why Romanians wanted to work in the UK. The camera focused on poor people in miserable places. Romanian politicians claimed this was a prejudiced view of the country, which has an abundance of beauty and brains to offer the world.
But what were these leaders trying to say with their facile complaints – that poverty in Romania is the fault of a film crew from London?
Unfortunately for the political classes, a documentary about a clever Romanian maths graduate who gets a job in Microsoft is a story no foreign journalist will follow. It doesn’t matter how many Nobel Prizes Romanians win – nor how many awards they pick up at international film festivals. PR won’t work. Good news will never be victorious over bad news.
Foreigners filming Romanian poverty won’t end until Romanian poverty ends.
Without action, Brits, French, Germans will keep coming to Romania with a series of prejudices that they want confirmed – and can get confirmed.
Sometimes they will try to paint a better picture – with a film that follows a poor child from a squat who wins a place at university, for example.
But the eye of the viewer will wander away from the story to the lack of running water, the muddy roads, the emaciated donkeys and the wagons, the damned wagons that every documentary about Romania seems hell-bent to include.
You can see the foreigners in the spring and summer in Transylvania or in villages near Bucharest. With their big lenses, headphones and booms on the dust-roads:
Open shot. From right screen, wagon and horse, in centre, driven by bearded man with no teeth. He picks up hat, waves it and says something – either a greeting or an insult – it doesn’t matter – the camera tracks wagon as it drives out of shot.