The juvenile theater troupe in “The World’s Most Dangerous District”

In the early spring of 2020, I was traveling in Romania. The prosperity and comfort of the capital Bucharest makes it difficult for me to associate it with the “poorest country in the EU”. “Are there poor people in Bucharest?” I finally couldn’t help but asked my Chinese friends living here.

“They are in the south, a place called Livezilor.” My friend saw what I was thinking: “But don’t go, it’s too dangerous. They are all gypsies. Drugs, crimes, everything. I live here. I have never been there for more than ten years.”

I found a Romanian friend again, wanting to know more information over there. If the tone of the Chinese friend is only slightly frightened, this native Bucharest man made no secret of his disgust: “Why are you going to a gypsy place like that! Don’t die?”

“Come on, it’s okay during the day”
The first time I heard the word “Gypsy” was due to the introduction of Spanish flamenco dance on TV. I once thought that the people who invented the flamenco dance were just a minority in Europe who could sing and dance. However, when I arrived in Europe, I discovered that Europeans, who are usually called “equality and tolerance” everywhere, have an aversion to this foreign nation. “Thief”, “liar” and “beggar” are the descriptions I have heard most about them.

In fact, “Gypsy” (Gypsy) itself is a scornful name. This name originated from “Egyptian” (Egyptian), because Europeans believed that these brown-skinned people came from Egypt. But their real hometown is Eastern India, and the correct name should be “Rom” (Rom). This nation, whose creed of “wandering”, wandered all the way from India to Europe a thousand years ago, but always stuck to its own way of life and refused all the possibility of integrating into the local society. They often do not have “decent work”, and mainly rely on handicrafts, singing and dancing, and divination for their livelihoods. Among them, there are no lack of thieves, and this has also caused many Europeans to hate them.

However, I never knew where the Roma people lived and what kind of life they lived; what kind of place was that nearly demonized Livezilor?

Entering “Livezilor” into the search engine, the first webpage that popped up was a report by a Swedish reporter who spent 3 weeks in-depth investigation in 2015. It did not hide the harsh environment and rampant drugs here; second A webpage, Livezilor “ranked” third in the “10 Most Dangerous Districts in the World” selected by a British media.

However, the third page made my eyes shine. There is actually a theater company called “Playhood”, all members are teenagers in this neighborhood! What kind of people are they? Why would such a theater company be formed?

I left a message on the troupe’s Facebook page and received an English reply soon. The other party told me that they were somewhere in the Livezilor block, and there was a rehearsal that afternoon, and I was welcome to visit. Regarding my doubts about “Is it safe to go there”, his reply was simple: “Come on, it’s okay during the day.”

With a dubious attitude, I boarded the tram bound for Livezilor. After getting off the bus, you still need to cross half of the Livezilor block to reach their address. What I saw along the way, except for the dirty streets and the broken buildings, it was not like a crisis-ridden slum in my imagination. The children were playing football, and laughter spread all over the street. They saw my unfamiliar face and rushed to shout “Hello” to me.

The “free man” abandoned by society
The husband who talked to me online, took me into an apartment (probably the neatest in the whole block). The heavy iron gate at the entrance of the yard completely isolates this place from the outside world, and also reminds me: The world outside the gate may not be as beautiful as the one I just saw.

He speaks English as fluent as the Internet, but he has a face that is completely unlike Roma, and his age is even less like a “juvenile”. What exactly is going on? Fortunately, he introduced himself in time and answered all my questions.

His name is Ionut, from the northern city of Sibiu. After getting a master’s degree from Romania’s most prestigious drama school, he worked as an actor, and later devoted all his energy to helping the children here form a “Playhood” theater company. “Fighting side by side” with him is his fiancee Madalina.

The wires were pulled privately by the residents, there was no running water at all, and the trash was everywhere, stinking stinks.

Former members of the Pl ay hood troupe appearing in the movie trailer

Speaking of his original intentions, Ionut said “thanks” to an online video that he saw before: A young Roma from Livezilor showed amazing acting talent without any professional guidance. At that time, Ionut, like most Romanians, mentioned Livezilor and Roma, with only fear and disgust in his heart. And that video completely changed him, he began to consciously contact the children of Livezilor, until he made “helping them” as his and his fiancee’s life theme.

“Are the residents of Livezilor all Roma?” “In fact, there are some other ethnic groups. But every family has a tragic story.” Ionut opened his chatterbox.

Livezilor was once the earliest industrial zone in Bucharest. From the end of the 19th century to the 1980s of the “Eastern Europe drastic changes” for nearly a hundred years, it has always been a colony of industrial workers, prosperous and peaceful. After the political upheaval, the state-owned factories here also lost their competitiveness and closed down one after another. “Laid-off workers” moved away one after another and went elsewhere to find another way out. Livezilor, which used to be in full swing, has gradually become an “industrial waste city” like Detroit in the United States.

Many of the Roma who were forced to go to school and assign jobs during the socialist government were abandoned by the new society, and Livezilor, whose rent was low enough, became their paradise. “Do you believe it, just that building can be rented for 20 euros for a whole month!” Ionut pointed to the typical Khrushchev-style old workers’ dormitory outside the window.

The crowded and chaotic living environment, with an unemployment rate of over 80%, makes this a paradise for drugs and crime. The only crime that is not available is burglary—because there is really nothing to steal in their house. Many people spend almost all their income on drugs, except that the only “entertainment” is to have children, to have a large group of children.

The so-called “integration” should never be accompanied by a ruthless abandonment of the culture of one’s own minority.

The government has long given up here completely and no longer provides any public services: the electric wires are privately pulled by the residents, there is no running water at all, and rubbish is everywhere, giving off a foul smell. Schools exist only in theory: parents send their children to school and the school will accept them, but many parents simply don’t want their children to go to school. In their view, the only purpose of raising children is to let them go out and make money as soon as possible (whether by decent work or crime), so that they can support themselves by taking drugs.

I onut takes the children to rehearse the lines of the play

Even if they are lucky enough to go to school, the education the children receive is extremely ridiculous. According to Ionut, the school only teaches them the pronunciation of 31 Romanian letters, so that when the leader checks, students can pretend to be able to “read aloud” a text. But the school does not teach them the meaning of every word, so they actually don’t know what they are reading, and even some students who have gone to junior high school can’t read “201” and “2001” correctly!

Therefore, Ionut prefers to call Playhood a “juvenile community organization” than a “troupe.” In order for the children to understand the script of the performance, he had to teach the most basic cultural knowledge to this group of teenagers from scratch like a primary school teacher. He recalled that when he first came here, his daily job was to strike up a conversation with the children on the street and ask them if they would like to do something “interesting” together.

Unexpectedly, the biggest resistance he encountered was not from the children themselves, but from their parents. In the eyes of those parents, anything that prevents their children from going out early to make money is not doing business properly. “In this case, it wasn’t until Playhood began to receive paid performance invitations and the children also had income, and it became better.” Ionut said with a wry smile.

Be a “Proud Roma”
Now, more than 20 Livezilor teenagers have joined Playhood. This rental house of less than 30 square meters is not only a small home for Ionut and Madalina, but also a studio for Playhood. The living room and kitchen are the children’s “classroom”, while the small bedroom is a place for them to practice.

Bringing this group of slum teenagers to perform, most of them are Roma, will you run into trouble? Ionut recalled taking them to a performance with a large audience, and when they got out of the car and walked to the stage, they suffered countless discriminations and insults. The audience whistled, booed, and yelled discriminatory language at them; even more so, they spit directly at them.

Playhood members perform in a cafe

That performance was a metaphor carefully designed by Ionut: a group of people, each holding a red sign, and only one holding a blue sign alone. Obviously, he was alienated from everyone and fell into confusion and hesitation. In the end, he reluctantly threw away his blue sign and held up a red sign that was indistinguishable from others.

Isn’t this the status quo of Livezilor? Most of the previous “help” to the Roma people are to enable them to master modern work skills. Some Roma people have embarked on this path and become “successful people”, but many of them who have integrated into modern society have since been ashamed of their compatriots, and even no longer recognize themselves as Roma. In Ionut’s view, the so-called “integration” should never be accompanied by a ruthless abandonment of the culture of the minority. He hopes to tap the talents of performing arts in the traditions of Roma youths, and provide them with scientific and modern guidance, so that they can find themselves and self-confidence in performing arts and become “proud Roma people.”

Unfortunately, a short performance is far from changing people’s prejudices over thousands of years. At the end of the performance, they still left the scene sadly amidst the sound of inverted colors. But there was an old woman who went backstage to find them with tears in her eyes and hugged them one by one. She said that the performance completely changed her cognition for most of her life.

It has been 3 years since Ionut had the idea of ​​helping Livezilor’s children. Most of his first members have “graduated”, and several of them have found formal jobs in a theater company in Bucharest, and some even got a role in a film by Romania’s most famous director!

“However, some people have not been able to finally get on the right path. Just last week, one of our members was put in jail.” Ionut said regretfully.

The members of Playhood sent me away with a dialogue session. Although I can’t understand every word they say, I can still feel their flying youth and self-confidence.

I wanted to take a few photos of the old workers’ dormitory that was almost a symbol of Livezilor, but Ionut stopped me. He said that in the past few years, too many curious hunters went there to take pictures, and some of them regarded the residents there as animals. Therefore, there have been several incidents where outsiders were attacked by residents, especially those who took drugs. He did not want me to be harmed, nor did he want to harm the residents there.

But he and Madalina still accompany me around there. The scene I saw was the same as what I saw on the Internet before: trash and despair. And here is the home that the group of children who were so excited during the rehearsal will go back for a while. Those addicts wandering downstairs with blurred eyes are their parents and family members. I have never seen a place where the distance between “hope” and “despair” is so close.