Once upon a time, there was a man named Marc Singer who heard a story about a group of homeless people living in an abandoned railway tunnel beneath the streets of New York City. After visiting several tunnels, he finally found an eclectic and capable group of homeless who were building a veritable village in a tunnel near Penn Station. After spending some time with them, he became a solid friend, and at some point one of the residents remarked that someone should make a movie out of their situation.
Marc agreed, and solicited advice from friends. Wondering if he should shoot film or video, he asked a friend's opinion and the friend told him, "you're making a film, right?" He visited a local camera shop, never actually having used a movie camera before, and ended up renting a 16mm black and white rig. Why black and white? Another friend told him that if you don't know what you're doing with color it's hard to get it right, but even if you don't know what you're doing with black and white, it will probably still come out.
The homeless denizens of the tunnel themselves became his camera crew. They tapped into the track power for electricity and developed lighting; one of them even built a series of three camera dollies to make use of an unused piece of track in the station for motion shots. In the "making of" documentary about the documentary (included in the DVD's special features) he tells us that he would announce what he wanted to shoot, and by the time he got there the locals would have the lighting (and dolly, where applicable) set up and ready for shooting.
The special features also include a significant collection of deleted scenes; Marc shot over fifty hours of film, but had to pare his film down to an hour and a half.
What sets this apart from other first documentaries is that it is good. The filming actually came out brilliantly and has a beautiful look that can only be acheived with black and white film. The sound quality is excellent (the locals functioned as sound crew, as well) and the overall quality of everything, including the DVD menu design, is impeccable. But all of this of course serves only one purpose; to highlight the stars of the show.
The people who live in the tunnel represent a fairly wide slice of humanity, although most of them are black, and most of them are crackheads. Mind you, this is not true of all of them, and the people we spend the most time with are, well, ex-crackheads. Most of the people we hear from in the video have their head screwed on right, with only a couple of exceptions, and they're very interesting people to listen to in general.
I don't want to spoil the movie, but it comes to a triumphant climax with what I must report is a happy ending - odious in the extreme in the form of your typical hollywood pap, but downright heart-lifting in a documentary.
Marc took Dark Days to Sundance in 2000, and apparently the panel and audience agree with my assessment of this movie (really the other way around, of course) because it won the Cinematography Award, Freedom of Expression Award, and the Audience Award1.
This movie may or may not give you a different perspective on the homeless, but if you like documentaries, you will appreciate this one.