Dark Days

on September 01, 2000 by Chris Wiegand
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This feature-length documentary, which won the Audience Award at Sundance, is the astonishing portrait of a community of homeless people living in a subway tunnel underneath New York City's Penn Station. The future of the community is jeopardized by Amtrak, the firm that owns the tunnel and plans to evict those living there.

   Shot in black and white, Marc Singer's compassionate film introduces the audience to the tunnel's many inhabitants, some of whom have lived underground for 25 years. We are shown their daily routines as they travel up to the streets to search for food and attempt to raise money by selling items found in the garbage. The film reveals the advantages of such a subterranean existence, such as the free supply of electricity as well as the obvious savings in rent. The tunnel also offers the homeless a certain security and freedom that they don't believe they would find in government shelter. One of the youngest residents, Tommy, left home at 16 to escape his abusive father and has discovered a new sense of pride through building his own shack. Singer draws frank and open reflections from the community, many of whom regret their behavior in their previous existences above ground.

   The director never underplays the community's problems and unflinchingly depicts the prevalent drug dependency and poor hygiene levels in the tunnel (with some unnerving close-ups of the rodent population). Despite this graphic detail, "Dark Days" is a strangely uplifting experience--a testament to the initiative and resilience of some extraordinary individuals who have succeeded in creating new homes and new lives for themselves. Singer spent over five years in the tunnel and befriended the inhabitants, who formed the crew for the documentary and built much of the filmmaking equipment (such as the dollies) from scratch. The dark underground environment is complemented by DJ Shadow's atmospheric and haunting score, which helps make this one of the best documentaries of recent years. Directed and produced by Marc Singer. A Picture Farm production. A Palm release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 80 min

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