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Dark Days

Few people can truly fathom the realities of day-to-day homelessness. Yet even more unsettling and surreal are the survival strategies in neophyte filmmaker Marc Singer's you-are-there portrait of indigents who set up housekeeping amid Manhattan's sunless transit tunnels. Struck an emotional nerve at Sundance, walking away with three docu prizes. Subject's fascination should secure further fest and niche-theatrical travel.

Few people can truly fathom the realities of day-to-day homelessness. Yet even more unsettling and surreal are the survival strategies devised by protags in “Dark Days,” neophyte filmmaker Marc Singer’s you-are-there portrait of indigents who set up housekeeping amid Manhattan’s sunless transit tunnels. Intimate and engrossing, feature struck an emotional nerve at Sundance, walking away with three docu prizes (the Grand Jury’s cinematography and Freedom of Expression nods, plus the Audience Award). B&W lensing won’t help eventual broadcast prospects, but subject’s fascination should secure further fest and niche-theatrical travel.

Singer spent two years living amongst denizens of a particular Amtrak railway tunnel beneath midtown Manhattan. Of some 75 people abiding there, about a dozen become principal characters here, though focus is somewhat casual and individual backstories emerge erratically. The few we get, however, are terse and harrowing: Dee (sole woman glimpsed) tells how her children died in a building fire between pulls on a crack pipe; Ralph, who keeps numerous pet dogs in a tunnel pen, expresses raw grief over the fact that his 5-year-old daughter was raped and mutilated while he was in jail. He’s been off crack for three years (even posting a “No Crack” sign on his shack entrance), but we’re told an estimated 80% of tunnel residents have the habit.

Singer’s camera captures a genuine sense of community, with these subterranean refugees look out for one another as best they can. Some are reported to have lived here as long as a quarter-century. All say tunnel life is much better than hazarding the streets above — beyond the obvious shelter from elements, it’s little-patrolled by the authorities, and not half so violent or theft-ridden as homeless shelters. There’s privacy here, particularly amongst those who have scavenged materials to create quite elaborate “houses,” complete with stoves, furniture and illicitly tapped power. Most scrape along by Dumpster-diving, for food as well as resalable items.

Near feature’s close (filming ended three years ago) Amtrak sends armed police to order tunnel vacancy within 30 days, citing health and safety concerns. Frantic advocacy efforts stumble upon a lucky solution: Burdened with too many cases, NYC social workers have left dormant a cache of Section 8 Federal Housing vouchers. Finale finds the residents — though a bit sad at “breaking up the whole family” — ebulliently knocking down their underground shacks, moving into subsidized flats and vowing they’ll “never be homeless again.” This happy ending seems almost too good to be true. At our social-service-slashed moment in time, who knew the system could actually work?

Narration-free pic would gain even greater drama if it added some info Singer revealed only at his Sundance Q&A — namely, that he took up tunnel residency expressly to orchestrate residents’ safe relocation, and that each addicted subject completed a drug-rehab program before moving into new digs. According to the filmmaker, all have since remained sober, independent and employed.

Brief explanatory text at feature’s start and close, clarifying these crucial aspects, could only bolster its impact. Also curiously unheralded: Camerawork, lighting and other on-site crew duties were handled by Singer’s fellow tunnel dwellers, none of whom (including helmer himself) had any filmmaking experience. Such details make a remarkable story even more inspiring, so why hide them? On the other hand, Singer’s background (as a professed Brit rave-scene burnout and ex-fashion model) is probably just as well left out here — though one suspects it would make for an equally compelling docu story.

There’s occasional repetitiousness to pic’s observation of everyday tunnel life, and frustration elsewhere over figures who intrigue but get little screen time. On whole, however, “Dark Days” is a well-paced look at an undeniably riveting subject. B&W photography — allegedly chosen because Singer figured it would expose his technical naivete less — lends images a noirish beauty, though in truth color lensing probably would have evoked the tunnel’s close quarters and clamminess more realistically. DJ Shadow contributes an effective, jazz-inflected hip-hop score. Other tech aspects are gritty but well-handled.

Dark Days

  • Production: A Picture Farm production. Produced by Marc Singer. Executive producers, Paolo Seganti, Randall Mesdon, Morton Swinsky, Gordon Paul. Co-producer, Ben Freedman. Directed by Marc Singer.
  • Crew: Camera (B&W), Singer; editor, Melissa Neidich; music, DJ Shadow; sound editors (Dolby Digital), Barbara Parks, Peter Levin, Timothy Anderson. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 27, 2000. Running time: 81 MIN.