Now over a decade old, the sole directorial credit of British expat Marc Singer, the multiple award-winning Dark Days is a powerful, illuminating and ultimately hopeful documentary exposé of a homeless community living under the streets of New York in part of the city’s disused subway tunnels. Focusing on one tight-knit group of underground squatters and their makeshift dwellings, part Depression-era tent city and part Third World shanty town, Dark Days candidly shines a light, both physical and metaphorical, on this extreme version of communal living, itself just one branch of an often forgotten or ignored section of society. Popularised in urban myth, and the focus of a factually disputed 1993 non-fiction book The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels beneath New York City by Jennifer Toth, the subterranean community is revealed in Singer’s lyrical portrait to be much like any other, with only their desperate circumstances and hellish living environment to differentiate them from mainstream society. Borne of an altruistic urge to raise awareness of the plight of the community in order to bring about a positive change in their lives, Dark Days subsequently raises many questions about contemporary society, the human spirit, social problems and the documentary form itself.
Shot on a shoestring budget over a few years in the mid-90s (with loaned cameras, homemade dollies, patched-up lighting and donated, slightly damaged black and white film stock) by novice filmmaker Singer and a skeleton crew comprising various members of the community itself, the finished article is a provocative and in many ways timeless film given the historic and ongoing problem of homelessness, economic deprivation and growing urban populations. The decision to shoot the film in black and white, adding an extra layer of murkiness to the already nocturnal environment was, according to Singer, partly taken to avoid the costly difficulties of lighting such an environment, and eventually made for him when the film stock was donated.
Eschewing the overtly subjective documentary style utilised by the likes of Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock and The Yes Men, Singer’s admirably objective film marries traditional to-camera monologues with unforced vignettes of everyday life. Culled from over 50 hours of footage, Singer’s loosely constructed narrative highlights heartbreaking personal stories, unguarded moments of humour and despair, daily struggles and collective insights into living in an alternative community that exists within a much larger one. Familiar, but still depressing, tales of dysfunctional, abusive upbringings, unforeseen tragedy, relationship breakdowns, mental illness and alcohol and substance abuse are recounted by the troubled but remarkably self-sufficient subjects amid the rat-infested filth and shadowy, brutal concrete environment of the labyrinthine tunnel system. By keeping a relatively low profile, aside from positing a few off-camera questions, Singer’s approach allows for a candid and authentic view of life in the community to play out. What could have been a hectoring, emotionally manipulative or voyeuristic piece is instead a poetic, humane and visually arresting account of the inner workings, relationships, tensions, hopes and eventual break-up of the ‘family unit’ that some have been a part of for over 20 years.
With a soundtrack supplied by DJ Shadow, and typography designed especially for the film by NY street artist Jaylo, this compelling, collaborative project is a testament to its subjects’ indefatigable spirit and dignity. The mostly, but not all, male community members display all the traits of ‘normal’ domesticated life - cooking, shaving, showering, cleaning, caring for pets - and strict house rules apply. As with residential areas above ground, home security is also an issue underground, where more ad hoc alarm systems warn of potential intruders. Homeless but resolutely not helpless, the community’s ability to ‘scavenge’ (or freecycle as it’s called now), feed themselves and sell, recycle or make use of the endless supply of often perfectly edible food or products in good working order thrown away by mainstream society reflects well on them and poorly on the consumerist society in which they exist. The intimate, and at times humorous, domestic sequences, petty arguments and swapped anecdotes evoke traditional family life, demystify the ‘homeless’ and foster a sense of endearment devoid of condescension towards those portrayed onscreen.
Any notion that the squatters are happy to live in their subterranean world is quashed when an eviction notice is served by Amtrak, leading Singer to enlist the help of the city’s Coalition for the Homeless. In a hard-fought compromise between the respective parties, housing vouchers are secured and the squatters take to breaking down and cleaning up their habitat with unabashed relish before being relocated above ground in clean, safe accommodation. This isolated story may end on an uplifting note, much to Singer’s and the subjects’ credit, but Dark Days remains a vital documentation and representation of a continuing, widespread problem, the resonance of which is heightened in these fragile, economically troubled times.
Watch the trailer: