Dark Days

Dark Days is an excellent documentary about a group of homeless people in New York who construct makeshift homes in the underground system. It carries a strong social message and challenges each of us to consider the plight of the homeless. It is shot in black and white with a haunting soundtrack from DJ Shadow.

Homeless people in Dark Days

The city of New York can be an unwelcoming place and with thousands of homeless men and women scraping out a life on the streets the competition is fierce. The Freedom Tunnel is part of the New York underground system and it stretches north from Penn Station into Harlem. Some homeless people decided to take shelter in the depths, away from the bustle of the streets. They used whatever scraps they could salvage to construct sturdy huts and a small community was born.

A British man named Marc Singer spent some time living with them. He was shocked by their struggle and along with an amateur crew they put together a film project with the intention of trying to raise some cash to help the subjects out of the dark and into proper homes. They shot on 16mm black and white film and captured some truly poignant moments as the forgotten underclass went about their daily struggle for food and sometimes booze and drugs.

This is a necessarily depressing film. The conditions that the people were living in were nothing short of appalling and the legal action by Amtrak to have them removed did not seem to be driven by any genuine concern for their welfare. Thankfully there was some light at the end of the tunnel and with the help of the Coalition for the Homeless they were able to secure housing vouchers for the population of this nightmarish underground village. Seeing the residents knock down their self-constructed havens and settle into new homes was a touching and heart warming experience.

A house in the underground

Dark Days came out back in 2000 and it deservedly won a number of awards. It is a beautifully made film which highlighted the ignored and unwanted society that has slipped through the cracks of a failing social system. If you consider that the homeless people portrayed here are the more capable members of their community, able to collect salvage and build a house. That they are in fact coping better with the situation than many of the others who are destitute on the streets then you can begin to see the magnitude of the problem.

The soundtrack fits the film perfectly. Singer edited a rough cut together with music from DJ Shadow and showed him the film. Apparently he was so impressed he remixed some of the music for them and allowed them the rights to use it.

The fact that our modern civilization is so wealthy and yet people live in conditions like this is a serious cause for concern. Singer was moved to make a film by what he saw and the fact that this is a caring portrayal rather than exploitation makes it a captivating documentary. If you want some perspective about how good your life is and how dark things can get for some people then Dark Days is the film to give it.

Reviewed by Simon Hill

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