Screen time

The poverty-stricken lives of two new Leeds vendors – from having to eat dirt to their shack being burnt down – are laid bare in a documentary that took them to the red carpet at Rome Film Festival

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The stars of a critically acclaimed French documentary are now selling Big Issue North in Leeds.

When they were three their father was in prison and by four Spartacus was begging on the streets

Spartacus, 21, and his sister Cassandra, 19, came into the Big Issue North office in August with their father Ursu, who has been selling the magazine in Huddersfield for the last four years. Having arrived in the UK only days before, the two young Roma people wanted to start earning an income as well, and it was during their introductory discussion with the office staff that the pair revealed they were the subject of a film, Spartacus and Cassandra, released in 2014.

The documentary details their life in a migrant camp in the town of Saint-Denis, near Paris, where they were living with their parents in a shack that had no running water and no electricity.

In the film, Spartacus and Cassandra, aged around 10 and 13 when it was made, meet a local woman, Camille, who runs a project helping poor and homeless children. When their shack in the camp is burnt down, Camille offers to foster the pair and they are torn between the chance of a new life with her and life with their parents on the street.

“It’s an honest film,” says Spartacus, speaking to Big Issue North on his first day of selling the magazine. “It’s what my life was like.”

“It’s a difficult story,” adds Cassandra.

In one trailer for the film, Spartacus is heard saying that he was eating dirt at the age of two, that when they were three their father was in prison and that by four Spartacus was begging on the streets of Romania.

The film shows how Camille starts a circus on the edge of Paris for the street children she works with. There the children get food and a place to stay while Camille, a trapeze artist herself, teaches them performing arts and circus skills. Cassandra explains how she learnt how to walk on a giant ball and use the trapeze. In another trailer, Spartacus and his sister can be seen walking a tightrope. They are still in touch with Camille, who, Spartacus explains, is like family to them.

Were they paid for the film about them? “No,” they reply. And did it make any real difference to their lives? “No,” they say again together.

“We went to many countries,” says Cassandra, who can be seen in photos standing with her brother on the red carpet at the Rome Film Festival. “They took us to many cinemas to present the film.”

Spartacus and Cassandra have left their life behind in Paris so they can be closer to their father but are desperate to find work. “We are homeless and we have no money,” says Spartacus. “Selling the magazine is a job.”

Whatever difficulties they faced in Paris, and whatever problems lie ahead for the family here, things in Romania were worse. “There is nothing in Romania,” says Ursu.

“We are Gypsies,” says Cassandra. “People there are racist. Bad stories are told about Gypsies. They do not like us.”

Ursu says that since he’s been in the UK he hasn’t encountered any problems. “People are nice here – very kind.”

He is happy his two children have come to live with him. “I was alone and now I am better because they are here.

“I am happy because my children have come back and I have missed them.”

But while life seems better, it is nowhere near perfect. The three of them are staying in one room at a friend’s house.

“This is not good,” says Cassandra. “It is difficult for me because I am a woman.”

Both Cassandra and Spartacus are keen to find “any work at all” to help them move into a new home. Once there with their father, they hope to bring their mother over to live with them. She is in Romania and, according to Ursu, “very sick”.

All three wonder what the future holds, especially with Brexit on the horizon. “Many people are going back to Romania,” says Spartacus. “That country is no good. We are worried.”

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