Documentary Lost Kids on the Beach traces the collective voice of Romania’s 90s generation

Documentary filmmaker Alina Manolache spent months tracking down children featured on a beach broadcast that once provided the soundtrack to her summer holidays — announcements about kids who had wandered away from their parents while playing in the beach. But as she collected images of these now adults, she found that far more connected them than the airwaves.

20 May 2021

The smallest details have the power to evoke youthful memories once forgotten. For documentary filmmaker Alina Manolache, her childhood lives on in Radio Vacanta: a beach radio station in 1990s Romania which, above all else, broadcast announcements about children lost on the beach. The stories themselves were trivial, and all of the children featured were soon reunited with their families — but the announcements left a deep impression on Manolache. Their haunting memory became the premise of her first feature documentary, Lost Kids on The Beach.

“I just had this question: what happened to kids my age that got lost on the beach in the 90s?,” says Manolache. “I created a Facebook page, and people started reaching out to me.”

But the filmmaker soon realised that much more connected these former children than the fact that they were once all separated from their families while on holiday.

“It became more interesting to have a dialogue,” she says. “Somehow everything aligned to tell the story of a lost generation.”

A still from Lost Kids on the Beach (2020)

Manolache was born in 1990, a year after the so-called Romanian Revolution and the collapse of Nicolae Ceaușescu communist regime. All of the people she interviewed came from the same generation, those who had grown up during the transition period from communist dictatorship to democracy. The filmmaker characterises her generation as one of trial and error, both unified and divided by the politics that shaped it.

Lost Kids on The Beach is a collection of vignettes that follows Manolache’s road trip through Romania in search of the once lost children. The film doesn’t worry about following a narrative structure, order, or symmetry. Instead, it presents the encounters as they unfold — some interviews are brief; in other cases, we spend more time with the protagonists; on the whole, Manolache offers windows into each person’s universe. “This fragmentation reminds us of real life and how we encounter people, because sometimes we remember somebody in detail: how they speak, their gestures. Other people we barely remember and we remember just a face or a reaction.”

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At first sight, Manolache’s interviewees seem to have little in common. The director visits a young man who dreams of becoming a mayor in his Transilvanian village; then a factory worker, a doctor, a stripper. One interviewee is a policeman who has recently come back to Romania after trying his luck abroad. He never lived under Ceausescu’s regime, but disenchanted with life in Western Europe, he now looks nostalgically at the communist past. Then, there is a farmer who names all his cows after the wives of the men who sold him the animals. Behind the camera, Manolache asks him about his fears: “I fear that Romania will get thrown out of the EU and end up under the Russians,” he says.

In this sense, Lost Kids on The Beach is an ethnographic window to the life of a generation at a point in time. But the childhood memories it hinges on also become a catalyst for Manolache and her interviews to re-interrogate the past in which they grew up.

As in the rest of the post-socialist world, the 90s was a turbulent period in Romania, defined by cultural and economic chaos. There was a general sense of being lost in the suddenly vast and unknown world, and the adults of the time had to adjust to this new reality. On the surface, children such as Manolache were aware of a very small fraction of what was going on. Yet, many of this generation of transition are still processing the past. “As a kid, you’re going to the seaside, you’re going to your grandparents’ house, you’re going to school, and that’s it. You have your parents, and if you have certain privileges, you’re fine. But as I made the film, I realised all kinds of discrepancies that happened during those times.”

A still from Lost Kids on the Beach (2020)

Many children growing up in the 90s saw their parents move abroad to find work, while they themselves were looked after by grandparents. The filmmaker’s parents themselves had their home snatched from them. Like many workers in communist Romania, they lived in a house given to them by the factory where they worked. When the factory was privatised in the 90s, both their jobs and home were stripped from them.

“They were just thrown out of their homes. Imagine you arrive home and you cannot open the door because the locks have been changed. They had to move to another town,” says Manolache. “Everybody has similar stories: when they were children, everything looked perfectly fine, but now they see the past through a different lens. We were suddenly freed, but we didn’t know what to do with that freedom, and maybe we still don’t know. It’s almost too much to bear after following all those generations who lived a somehow scripted life. We suddenly have the option to make choices for ourselves, to choose where we work, to choose where we live, what we want. For many of us, it might just be too much. I think it will follow us all our lives.”

“Everybody has similar stories: when they were children, everything looked perfectly fine, but now they see the past through a different lens”

Manolache is a sporadic presence throughout the film: her voice is often heard offscreen and she occasionally shares the frame with the people she encounters. She climbs hills, sits next to her interviewees, and walks down the beach with a giant loudspeaker. On one occasion, she shares footage from her family archive. “I prefer to be hidden if possible, but somehow the subject dictated this approach. This journey had to have a guide, because there are so many voices in the film,” she says. “Yes, you feel vulnerable and exposed, but at the same time, that’s something I also demanded from my characters. I was somehow putting myself in an equal position as them. It was a way to say to them that it’s ok to be vulnerable, it’s ok to expose your feelings. It’s ok for them to talk about themselves, because I’m also talking about myself.”

But as with her previous short films — museum guards, rural youth and astronauts in space during COVID, the director’s promising feature debut is predominantly interested in the collective. “I think it’s an interest in groups and shared experiences,” she says. “I resonate very much with this kind of structure and I cannot stop at just one voice. It’s like music. You have to find all these instruments that together create the piece.”

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