review by Carrie Gorringe, 1 September 2000
deserving winner of an absolute slew of awards at this year's
Sundance festival (the Best Documentary and Freedom of Expression
Award among them), Dark Days is the emotionally rending end
product of director Marc Singer's two-year residency in the tunnels
under New York City's Penn Station.
Here, he documents the lives of the homeless and the various
miseries (crack, dysfunctional families, et al.) that brought them
to this existence, in what can only be described as something of a
subterranean Hooverville (indeed, the grainy black-and-white images,
courtesy of Singer's dependence upon scraped-together film footage
and free camera loans, evoke nothing so much as the
photographs of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans of the
socio-economic devastation wrought during the 1930s).
Their lives, like Singer's filmmaking, consist of scraping
together a dignified existence:
they obtain electricity by tapping into the grids above and
shower through the auspices of a leaky pipe.
According to a recent interview in The New York Times,
Singer, a Londoner by birth, came to New York City in hopes of
becoming a model, and was persuaded by a homeless man's comments to
document its real underground society.
His only goal, "crazy as it sounds", was to improve
the lives of the people that he encountered and to get them out of
the tunnel: call it
both a literal and figurative uplifting.
Singer has succeeded in creating a new and poignant portrait of
homelessness with his unconventional and spontaneous filmmaking.
But Singer's film is more than a documentation of misery; it
demonstrates the strength of their interpersonal bonds, their
desperate attempts to better their life on a daily basis (these
people are not passive victims, bemoaning their fate), and Singer's
bravery and integrity as he fought for these new-found, but
dispossessed friends, despite his protestations to the contrary.
might be expected from a first-time director, the progression from
darkness to light isn't problem free.
Singer's decision to let his subjects direct themselves -- in
true cinéma-vérité style, using long takes, and relatively
minimal editing -- allows their humanity and individuality to emerge
(not to mention economically advantageous).
However, within this process of differentiation lies the risk
of playing upon/to middle- and upper-middle-class attitudes about
that group of individuals so pityingly described as the
"deserving poor". These
are the people who just temporarily, as the cliché goes, need a
helping hand – or, in some cases, a helping shove – to boost
them back up to and onto the economic ladder.
These are not the intoxicated people urinating on the
sidewalks as you attempt to add that problem to the rest that
constitute walking on contemporary city streets, nor are they the
ones who walk up to you yowling incoherent threats while you hope
that the "walk" light will flash before something worse
happens. In short, the
homeless who refuse or seem beyond rehabilitation.
Even though the film ends on a conventionally happy note (and
rightfully so, for those involved), the question of what to do
about/with the most intractable cases is still ineluctable:
it sits there, demanding an answer.
In Dark Days, Singer avoids the question primarily
because the parameters of his topic are narrow (thereby making this
an error of omission, not commission), but it's still a nagging
subtext that remains for society long after the film leaves the
post-cinematic glow of a goal fulfilled.
omissions from the narrative of Dark Days seem utterly
baffling. As Singer
explained in a post-screening Q&A at the Seattle International
Film Festival this year, he experienced his own awakening of sorts
about homeless advocacy groups in NYC while making the film:
apparently, while Singer was in production with Dark Days,
both the current and former heads of HUD had toured the tunnels and,
shocked by what they saw within, promptly issued a fairly generous
number of extremely precious Section Eight vouchers to be used by
the tunnel-bound homeless to obtain subsidized housing, but those in
the homeless advocacy groups that received the vouchers were too
frightened to go down into the tunnels to issue them. Singer never
specified exactly why he didn't document this shocking act of
indifference, other than his desire to maintain neutrality, but
impartiality doesn't necessarily disappear in the face of truth,
especially when such indifference inspires questions about the
motives of some who claim to work for the benefit of the less
so-called cui bono Syndrome cannot be dismissed on either
economic or moral grounds: money
shouldn't be wasted on sinecures while people suffer.
It may be that
the film suffers to some extent from a certain simplicity of content
and a naïve approach to its subject matter, but Dark Days,
for all of its faults, deserves a wider audience;
even the questions it leaves unanswered linger within its
frames, forcing discussions on topics and assumptions many of us
would prefer be left unchallenged.
As this review is being posted, the film will be released in
all of six cities: it
deserves a wider release in addition to awards.
Click here to read Carrie
Gorringe's Seattle International Film Festival report.