In this economy many of us might flirt with the notion that we’re only a couple of wage slips away from being homeless, knowing full well that in reality we have a safety net of family, friends and the Welfare State to act as a buffer zone should the worst happen. Things are somewhat different in the Land of the Free and if you asked any New Yorker to describe their biggest fear, ending up homeless on the street would probably feature top of the list. But Marc Singer’s remarkable documentary Dark Days shows that the worst nightmare can be survived. As George Orwell described it in his cult memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London: “It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty. You have thought so much about poverty — it is the thing you have feared all your life, the thing you knew would happen to you sooner or later; and it is all so utterly and prosaically different. You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness.”
Most of Dark Days was filmed below the streets of Midtown Manhattan in a fetid Amtrak railway tunnel where a colony of around 75 homeless were living, some for as long as 25 years, among the rats and the garbage. The film really captures how this was a life of subsisting in a murky Stygian world without natural light, the (to our sophisticated eyes) poor lighting/film stock making the experience more realistic.
All the more surprising to discover that Marc Singer is a former model who went from a Manhattan loft to living underground for two years, side by side with the tunnel dwellers while filming. He initially found the tunnels ghostly. “You feel as if you’re being watched. It takes time for your eyes to adjust. There are stretches like no man’s land. You’ll get a cluster of 30 homes, then a stretch of nothing. Those areas are so dark, and the air is thicker and heavier. You feel like you’re being followed.”
Although initially treated with understandable suspicion – why would anyone choose this life of their own free will – these people became his film crew as well his subjects. Although a railway tunnel may seem like pits of hell, its inhabitants insist that their environment allows them far more freedom and dignity than a life spent being shuttled among the city’s homeless shelters where thievery and disease are rampant. Dark Days is very candid about showing the basic reality of building a community of sorts from scratch – just like above, some people are houseproud and constantly trying to improve their lot, whereas others are barely capable of opening a can.
Most of the tunnel people make an existence by foraging above ground during the day, collecting bottles and cans for recycling and selling junk on the streets. (One man generously shares his knowledge that the fastest selling items on the street are gay porno magazines.) Some of the most unsettling footage shows rats competing with the residents for food. The tunnel dwellers were inevitably mostly men and mostly crack addicts.
The ending feels hopeful. When Amtrak sent armed police to break up the community, Marc Singer called on the Coalition for the Homeless to intervene, and the organization struck a deal with the federal government to provide housing vouchers for the tunnel residents. This almost seems like a fairy tale but the final scenes show several of the residents, who have successfully completed drug rehab programs, settling into immaculate new apartments and beginning new lives. Although starting over is a challenge, one hopes they made it. At least they were given the chance to have a go.
Dark Days is out now from Dogwoof. Worth buying for the haunting score by DJ Shadow alone. A deluxe double-disc DVD follows on 10 February 2014. For more information and especially screenings, click here.
Words by Anna Bang
Tagsanna bang, Dark Days, DJ Shadow, Dogwoof, Marc Singer,