Dark Days
review by Carrie Gorringe, 1 September 2000

The 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.

On balance, 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.

However, as 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.

Some other 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 fortunate.  This 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.

Directed by:
Mark Singer







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