I think it was Luis Buñuel who, with his film Los Olvidados (Mexico, 1950), invented the genre of film that exposes the plight of homeless or semi-homeless children who spend alot of their time on the streets, at least in a Latin American context. In this essay, I will discuss a series of films that I hope, taken together, help define what this genre is about.
Los Olvidados, or The Young and the Damned as it was called in the U.S., presents the problems of Pedro, a poor kid who struggles to do the right thing despite being thought of as a criminal, and of Jaibo, a boy whose violence stems from the desperation of being homeless and having to hustle every single day just to survive, as well as the lack of any parental figures who could help or guide him. The end that Pedro comes to in the film was shocking for audiences of the time in its violence and because it showed the utter lack of concern for the lives of children like him on the part of many members of society. Children in films like these are not portrayed as cute or charming, and they do not sugarcoat or minimize the problems presented with comedy.
Films about street kids have been made so many times in Latin America that they can be considered a genre intimately intertwined with the development in the 1950s and 60s of the socially focused films that would come to be called New Latin American Cinema, and
stretching beyond it to films still being made today. Fernando Birri's 1960 film Tire Dié, about ragged children who run after trains begging for the passengers to throw them the spare change they need to survive was a key film of this movement. In Brazil, Glauber Rocha advocated for a cinema with an uncompromising "aesthetic of hunger" that would make it impossible for first world viewers to think of poverty as picturesque, folkloric. or charming.
There were similar tendencies in India starting in the 1950s with the parallel cinema movement when Bengali filmmakers, like Latin American filmmakers, responded to Neorealism by starting to make gritty films that were very different from the Bollywood productions that were, and still are, so popular in India. In 1988, Mira Nair filmed Salaam
Bombay, about street children in Bombay, a film that, in its bleakness and lack of redemption, is reminiscent of films about street children made in Latin America. Though India produces more films than any other country in the world, Indian Cinema had not received much recognition on the part of viewers in the Americas at the time this film came out. Salaam Bombay was a crossover film that received a great deal of positive critical attention from the west, as well as an Oscar nomination, and, at the Cannes Film Festival, the audience prize and the Camera d'Or. It opened doors for Mira Nair that made it possible for her to go on to make many films in the U.S. and the U.K., as well as in India, none of which have the bleakness of Salaam Bombay.
In 2008, the English director Danny Boyle made Slumdog Millionaire, a film about street kids in Bombay that had a wide international release, and was enormously successful in western countries. It won 8 Academy Awards, 7 Baftas, 4 Golden Globes, and a Goya, and did very well at the box office. Slumdog is reminiscent of Salaam Bombay in its depiction of the tough lives of street kids, but it takes another turn when the main character wins the grand prize on a game show and the film ends with a celebratory Bollywood dance
number. At a time when Indian films were starting to attract attention in the west, Boyle made a hybrid film mixing two ideologically opposed traditions in Indian cinema, and found success with western audiences for whom both approaches, though they were already familiar to Indians, appeared fresh and original. When Slumdog came out in India, it did not initially do as well as Indian films premiering at the same time. However, when audiences realized how successful it was in the west, attendance rose and it became successful there too. In England, Rupert Murdoch's newspaper, News of the World, called it "the feel-good film of the decade." No phrase could better illustrate how this commercial film is in fact exactly the opposite, ideologically speaking, of the kind of film Latin American filmmakers like Glauber Rocha set out to make.
Despite the inevitable commodifications of the genre that will always occur, raw films that chronicle the pain of children struggling to survive on the streets, and that do not conform to the Hollywood three act structure, or evade the problem with a happy ending, have continued unabated in Latin America.
The seventies produced films like I Am a Delinquent (dir. Clemente de la Cerda, Venezuela, 1976), about a poor boy in the Caracas slums forced into a criminal lifestyle.
The Brazilian film Pixote (dir. Hector Babenco, 1980) begins in a jail where minors who are imprisoned form a family in which Dito, a teenage boy, is a father figure, and Lílica, a teenage trans woman, assumes a motherly role for the younger boys. The group manages to escape from prison and become couriers transporting drugs to Rio de Janeiro where they expect to be well paid for their work. However, on the way, the family falls apart as, one by one, the boys meet violent ends or drift away. In the end, penniless 10 year old Pixote is left alone, aimlessly wandering down train tracks that lead into the distance.
Central Station (dir. Walter Salles, Brazil, 1998) reverses the trajectory of Pixote in an interesting variation on the genre. In this film, it is the movement away from the city and towards the country that brings redemption. So often, people from the countryside have migrated to cities in search of a better life but instead found themselves living in poverty and subjected to violence and abuse in crowded slums. In these places, it is easy for them to fall through the cracks, and be ignored by urbanites hardened by the roughness of city life. In Pixote, the movement was towards the city and the promise of economic reward and a better life which in the end was not fulfilled. Central Station moves in the opposite direction. In Salles's film, a boy in Rio de Janeiro becomes homeless when his mother is killed in a train accident. Dora, an ex-teacher who writes letters for illiterate people that she often then cynically throws in the trash instead of mailing, sees the homeless boy in the train station every day. At first she resists helping him, thinking of herself as a tough survivor who takes advantage of others and does not let them take advantage of her. But she softens, eventually choosing to take the boy back to his family in the countryside in the north of Brazil. As they move away from the city, people become simpler, more generous, and more religious, as can be seen in the sequence that takes place in the small town of Bom Jesus (Good Jesus). There, needing money, Dora offers her letter writing service to the good but uneducated people of the town whose gentle open faces we see one after another as they articulate the sentiments they want conveyed to their friends and relatives in these letters. This time, to the surprise of the boy, she actually mails the letters.
Cesar Gaviria's film Rodrigo D No Futuro (Colombia 1990) shows the nihilistic Medellin punk culture of the 1980s. The
title makes a clear reference to the Sex Pistols and the punk scene in England, but the film shows an intensely self-destructive, suicidal violence that was not present in the English scene. Here's the trailer with English subtitles (1:14):
Here is the entire film in Spanish without subtitles (1:32:05):
Angela Boatwright's 2016 documentary Los Punks: We Are All We Have also shows how punk culture becomes the refuge of kids who have little else in life, this time Latino kids in South Central and East LA. Here's the trailer (2:17):
You can watch the entire film here (1:19:28):
The 2019 Mexican film I'm No Longer Here (dir. Fernando Frías de la Parra) was widely seen since it was produced by Netflix, and you can still find it there. It depicts the cumbia culture that kids in street gangs in the city of Monterrey are into. Ulises is the leader of a gang called Los Terkos whose members are Kolombias, that is fans of cumbia rebajada, a type of Colombian music that has been slowed down to create a uniquely Monterrey sound. The Kolombias are more interested in expressing themselves through their particular way of dressing and dancing to this music than by fighting other gangs. But Ulises is forced to leave the country and his friends when another gang threatens to kill his family if he does not. When he is finally able to return, the culture has changed and he finds himself in a sense homeless since the culture by which he defines himself no longer exists. Here is the trailer (1:40):
Then there is the 2022 Colombian film A Male (dir. Fabian Hernandez) which looks at how the violent culture of the streets of Bogotá forces boys to exhibit a certain type of masculine appearance and behavior. Towards the beginning of the film, Carlos, who is separated from his family and lives in a shelter, must venture out onto the streets where he will have to fend for himself. Despite tattooing his face and cutting his hair to conform to the expectations of street fashion, he is challenged and pushed to engage in violent and destructive behavior to prove his manhood over and over again. This ongoing harassment is juxtaposed with occasional scenes that show a much more sensitive person, such as a phone conversation with his mother in which he talks about how much he misses her and cries. As with most of the other films discussed here, the central problem of the film is left unresolved. Carlos will not be saved. He will have to survive as best he can in this hostile environment. Here's the trailer (1:30):
An excellent new Dominican film about a girl who is forced to use all her street smarts to survive is Rafaela (dir. Tito Rodriguez, 2022). The film was made largely due to the actress Judith Rodriguez. Rodriguez is omnipresent in Dominican cinema and has acted in many of the best Dominican films of the contemporary era. In 2011, however, she was a young actress who had not yet acquired the reputation she has today, and her generation of filmmakers had only begun to make the kinds of innovative serious films that were beginning to receive international recognition, and which Dominican investors are now happy to finance. She conceived of the story at that time and proposed to Tito Rodriguez that they make it as a short film. Tito felt that it should be a feature film and developed the idea with Cristian Mojica, who wrote the script. Then Judith took on the role of producer and presented the project to possible investors. At the time, Dominican investors were not interested in financing a film that presented what they considered a negative image of the country and depicted conditions they denied existed. Financing was eventually obtained, but this is not to say that attitudes have completely changed. In 2022, after the film came out, Judith still had to refute the claim of some reviewers that the conditions of extreme poverty depicted in the film did not exist. On the contrary, she insisted, in Capotillo where the film is set, and was filmed, 21% of children do not go to school, 30% of the children in school cannot read or write, and young children beg for food on the streets barefoot. Rodriguez gives an incredible performance in this moving film, utterly transforming herself physically, not only in her appearance but also in her way
of talking and of moving. Rafaela grows up in extreme poverty in a dysfunctional and abusive household which makes it necessary for her to fend for herself starting at an early age. In this environment, she hides the part of herself that yearns for something better under the facade of a hardened gangster from which any trace of femininity or vulnerability has been removed. As in other films about street kids mentioned here - I Am A Delinquent, A Male - the film shows us the pain of a sensitive person forced to maintain a tough exterior in
order to survive as long as they can in an environment in which they are in constant danger. The ending, like that of Los Olvidados, is impacting because a character we have come to care about is treated as if she were no more than a piece of garbage to be thrown away. In the case of Rafaela, the impact is much stronger because the betrayal that leads up to it is more profound, more intimate. The cinematography of Oliver Mota and the editing of the film contribute to the intensity that propels the action constantly forward through much of the film. However, this changes at the end with the poetry of the lengthy unhurried final shot. We look through Rafaela's eyes and see what she sees until the final fade out. Here is the trailer (2:26):
Films about street children show the mistreatment, violence, dysfunctional or absent families, and despair kids like these have to deal with in countries around the world. They also show how the street produces distinct subcultures, and gives rise to new kinds of music, fashion, and art that can percolate up and exert influence on other artists, contributing vital creative energy that plays a part in shaping cultural identities and the artistic landscape in general. New films about street kids continue to be made. The genre is as healthy and powerful today as it has ever been. This reminds us that the problems these films depict have not gone away. Neither have the subcultures that arise when people who have very little use what they have to make art.