Dark Days
Director: Marc Singer

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

Visually Dark Days (2000) has an edgy spooky beauty, having a film noir or cinema verite art-film look which one doesn't generally expect from low-budget documentaries. The sharp-contrast b/w cinematography (shot 16 mm) is the perfect counterpoint to the subject matter, documenting the lives of several individuals within an extensive homeless community which lives in an abandoned subway tunnel in New York City.

These many men & a few women build houses out of salvage along the unused tracks. Most have pride in their "homes" & keep them as clean as they can, paint them, arrange & rearrange them, knock out walls to add new wings. The result is an underground shanty-town, like a ghetto in hell. "You adjust," observes one of the inhabitants. "You'd be surprised what the human body will adjust to."

Dark DaysBesides beautiful photography there's also an appealing, effective soundtrack by sound collagist D.J. Shadow. A film this well done totally immerses you in a subject that is troubling, deeply painful, yet macabrely beautiful.

There's a real sense of community & friendship & a surprising degree of sharing in the underground village, with more positivity than one would expect, for all the parallel sense of being always outcast & endangered. Despite the alcoholism & drug abuse that put many of these people in these "dark days," they never lose their humanity, & they express the poetry of community with greater sensitivity & ease than most of us will experience on our own streets of unknown neighbors.

It's a totally nonjudgemental perspective as though made "from the inside" rather than by some filmmaking outside reporter. The attendant "extra," The Making of Dark Days (2001), is a significant & important adjunct to the documentary because it reveals that the director was in fact friends with some of these people before they mutually began making this film together. Among the underground population was all the expertise required for filmmaking, so the camera crew was essentially the same people as the film was about. Finding themselves competent to the work was for some the first foothold to getting back on their feet entirely.

While making Dark Days on the shoe-est of shoestring budgets, the director was always seeking more funds to continue & complete the project, & with help from homeless advocates Section 8 housing came available. Singer had promised these people, "If you help me do this, I guarantee it will get you out of the tunnels," a promise made on faith alone. Before the film was finished, his promise was kept, so that Dark Days ends with light.

While by no means is homelessness romanticized -- it is revealed as abject hellishness -- the great sense of humanity the tunnel people preserved did have an edge of heroic decency that will change how anyone looks at the homeless thereafter. When these folks got real apartments, however, they were delighted to tear down their own hard-built houses underground.

It took six years to get the film completed & edited, & it took the Sundance festival by storm, taking multiple awards including for cinematography & best documentary. Another extra on the dvd is a text of "where are they now" & the majority had in fact gotten their lives together & had marriages, jobs, businesses, sobriety, & other major rewards in their biographies. But three of them didn't make it at all, lest we be tempted to believe their experience with homelessness was rewarding or character-building on some demeaning level.

The documentary & its support extras add up to one of the finest works about homelessness ever committed to film. To see these people building their shacks in a dark, dark world, stealing electricity for a bit of light, playing with pets, battling rats, cooking, cleaning, building & rebuilding, conversing, scavenging, cementing friendships.... there is so much here that defines what it means to be a human being, with or without a home. There is pain beyond sorrow, but also very great achievement in the act of survival, so that this is simultaneously one of the darkest, grimmest, & most horrific, but also the most uplifting & hopeful of true tales ever told.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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