Mar 14, 2006

Dark Days: On Life Underground

NetFlix has opened my eyes to the world of independent documentaries that I missed along the way. The latest that I checked out was a keeper called Dark Days, which enters a community of homeless New Yorkers who made a community for themselves in an old abandoned train tunnel on the West side of Manhattan, deep underground. The film is shot in black and white; the sounds are courtesy of the trains, the residents, the rats, and DJ Shadow; and there is a story behind what you see on screen, which doesn't shock so much as it illuminates what was once well beneath the surface of the cold Manhattan streets.

I thought the film by Marc Singer was the typical anthropological adventure and exploration of a particular breed of New Yorker - the so-called mole people that urban legend had introduced to the intrepid about the labyrinthine depths of the old lattice of train tunnels that criss-crosses beneath the most densely packed area of land in all of the United States. And at first, you think that's exactly what you are watching as you are introduced to a cast of residents with particular habits and idiosyncrasies. However, as you continue to watch their day-to-day lives in a loose structure that doesn't quite conform to classical act-based story-telling (and doesn't have a narrator to lead us along the premise), you start to wonder what the point is of these endless takes. Is there a story? Is it going to be obvious, or is this something fully in the realm of art-for-art's-sake?

But then you start to think about what these folks have in this tunnel, and how they have survived, and found ways to survive, build homes out of what they could find, salvage the usable food and materials from our waste, and even means of income from the discarded items of value to others that they picked up and sold. You think about how they cared for their homes same as any of us would. How they made due, tapping into electricity currents, cooking what they needed, and even supporting one another. You realize what their stories, or at least some of them, were to get them to that place, and how each of them was a survivor, unwilling to live exposed to the elements, or in a shelter where they had no sense of ownership or privacy. I was overwhelmed by their sense of ownership down there.

And then the film moved on to show that they were at risk of being tossed out when Amtrak decided to run their Albany - New York corridor through that tunnel, and how they worked with Coalition for the Homeless, and they were eventually connected with homes on the surface. And then you realize that they didn't enjoy living in the tunnels at all, and that they were surviving, but that they had no romanticized notions of what it was - that they felt and knew that it was hell. And the happiness they showed about moving on and up from that environment was the second striking thing.

The third wasn't actually in the film, but in the making of. There, an interview with Marc Singer revealed that he actually had just been interested in the stories that he was hearing about someone living in the tunnels, after he had been spending some time with homeless folks on the surface. He went down, with only curiosity, not a film project, driving him, and he ended up meeting, and spending about 2 months with folks that he'd found in the tunnel. He then learned, after becoming friends with a lot of the residents, that they were at risk of being kicked out. He was upset, they were upset. One of the residents said "they should make a film of this to remember what it was," and Marc started thinking that it would be an effective advocacy tool to either help stop the eviction or get them place up on the surface, instead of a place on the waiting list.

So he thought he'd make a film, but that the residents would be the crew and that they would have a stake and a role in the making of the film, so that they would be working towards their own solution. And that they would use the money from the film to solve the housing issue for the residents. When I heard the story behind the film, I felt that it actually added a great deal to it for me. And the way that Marc worked to get financial backing without releasing creative control, and that he was actually homeless near the end, having run through all his resources to get to a standstill before finishing the film, and actually having to stay with the residents for lack of an alternative. He spoke about how they took him in, and made it possible for him to finish the film, and also about how they found it funny that he had to join them.

Much is said about the use of film and other media as a medium for change, but often, it is a subject/object and observer relationship, much like anthropology. It feels like the camera lens is a significant wall between the filmer and the filmee. But Dark Days certainly feels very different, mostly because the residents were involved in the making of the film, even if creative decisions may not have been consensual. And because the film remains both the rare example of an advocacy piece that worked before the end of filming (and was able to include some of the positive end result within its 85+ minutes), and a historical document, as the residents destroyed the underground homes that they so carefully and painstakingly built and maintained when they had to vacate.

While it may not be the most compelling subject for folks, I think that the film does what it needs to establish the humanity of the residents and the lives that they were leading without pleading for pity or aggrandizing their situation. It made me think a little differently about my city, and it also showed that not all unhappy stories have sad endings.

Definitely one to check out.

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