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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Classics Review: Dark Days (2000)

Dark Days follows a close-knit homeless community who have managed to make the most of an abandoned Amtrak tunnel underneath the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. They have managed to create a utopia, away from the prying eyes, violence, theft and harassment of the law. It’s another world here, like stepping onto another planet we cannot even come close to recognizing or truly understanding. They’ve made the most of their homeless haven, each individual is proud of their living setup, going as far as to renovating their shacks through painting, strengthening walls and ceilings, all the way to contemplating about making a balcony for their little home. They’ve managed to take the lemons life has hurled at them and make lemonade.

Although not ideal for anyone, it’s admirable in the level of comfort and safety that has been carved out of the ground given the terrible limitations they have found themselves grappling with. These individuals obviously would prefer to not be homeless, but readily admit to loving and appreciating the level of freedom this underground utopia has given them, allowing them to really do whatever they want without the fear and pressure of becoming fully functioning members of society once more. They have everything from electricity, to food, to warmth, and at one point, had clean, running water. All this without having to pay a dime for the comfort provided for them away from the stresses of the surface. No judgement among them, a world free of bigger responsibilities they appear to be hiding away from.

It’s so easy for us to look and judge these people, saying “I will never be like that and I will never live like that”. But it’s also so easy for us to look at, and in a way, appreciate the level of freedom they truly possess. Despite the objectively unfavourable living conditions, it’s a freedom we all secretly want, not having to adhere to the added responsibilities we have as taxpaying citizens working a 9-5 job we hate. An individual admits that he got comfortable staying down there, not wanting to pull himself out of his rut due to the cost of being a regular Joe on the surface with the added responsibilities he doesn't need to worry about down here. It sharpens our focus as to why this underground community works is so appealing to them, with some finding themselves staying down there for years voluntarily, delaying the inevitable day they have to return from the underground and face their fears and inner demons head-on.

However, not all are like this, as some genuinely cannot face the world waiting for them up above. Stricken with guilt, battling addiction, having no family or a place to genuinely, or even potentially, call home, etc. These people have very real fears of breaking their routine. There are heartbreaking stories of guilt and trauma that haunt a few of them, not feeling brave or deserving enough to return back to more normal, stable lives. One individual, who not only experienced problems with the law and a personal tragedy, has been clean from crack for three years running. If anything were to come and take him away, he is terrified of falling into his old habits if they choose to place him in homeless shelters where his hard-fought progress could potentially fall apart in an instant.

It’s not all heartbreak and learning to live in content with the poor living situations they find themselves in, there’s also a surprising amount of heartwarming joy found with some of these individuals that continue to remind us of their relatable humanity. Residents introduce us to their well-looked after canine companions, who serve as guard dogs to their homes as they go out rummaging and hustling for the day. They're also their anchors to sanity and some kind of joy, providing warmth and love for them as some play and feed them with enthusiasm as they talk to us. Another resident goes through photos of all his fury friends, mostly cats who keep the rats away from them. “He is the greatest cat in the world. Maybe not the greatest, but one of the best”.

Director Mark Singer never made a film in his life. After relocating from London to New York, he was fascinated with the community of homeless people and wanted to better understand their situations. After befriending a few, they invited him to see their lives away from the surface, going as far as to let him stay with them as well. This level of intimacy allows for Singer to give us deeply personal portraits of these people, instead of exploiting their personal and physical situations as poverty porn. He genuinely loves his subjects, and through his footage and conversation with each of them, we get that he is one of them - part of the community that is ready to fight tooth and nail for each other. This attachment to his subjects lets Mark Singer remind us that these people are no different to us, allowing us to find a little bit of ourselves in each one of them.

Singer never exploits their situation in order to pat himself on the back. One of the reasons he decided to make this film, was to help these people financially, using it as a weapon to help them moved to proper living facilities where they can return back to being a part of society once again. Along with Singer, his subjects learnt how to use the gear and filmed portions of the film themselves. Singer also relied on camera rental stores and even Kodak to provide equipment and film (damaged but free) in order for him to keep documenting these fascinating individuals in the hopes that it will actually do some good. It’s an admirable exercise in documentary filmmaking that is, surprisingly, the very first piece of filmmaking he has ever done, giving us a truly honest and raw piece of visceral filmmaking devoid of technical summersaults and unnecessary gimmicks.

The film’s stark, gritty 16mm black and white footage is so appropriate as it makes this underground world truly feel otherworldly and completely removed from our own. He lets us get used to the darkness and atmosphere of it all before taking us on excursions to the surface, making the world on top feel more alien to us than down below. It's highly effective in making us want to retreat to the confines of the underground, letting us understand, even if it's just a little, why they choose to build their lives away from the increasingly cruel and changing world on the surface. Hip-Hop producer DJ Shadow provided most of the music to the film, most prominently from his legendary Endtroducing…LP. This adds another flavour to Dark Days’ efficacious, immersive experience – with DJ Shadow (and one UNKLE song)’s music transporting us to a world of perpetual darkness, grime, heartache, freedom and even joy that can only truly be experienced by being there. The music and rough footage allows us to feel, taste and smell just a fragment of that.

Dark Days effectively backs you into a corner and makes you really look at the lives we find ourselves ignoring on a daily basis. It doesn’t want to guilt-trip you, but it wants you to understand and sympathize with these people as they work up the courage to finally return back to the world they find themselves having and needing to run from. Dark Days is as brave and as viscerally effective as documentaries can get, putting you in the shoes of a world we all hope and pray we never have to experience.

Where you can watch it: True Story (SA, USA, UK, Australia), Prime Video (UK, Australia)

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