Marc Singer's 2000 documentary on the subterranean homeless of New York remains warm and genuine
Marc Singer was a young Briton adrift in New York City when he discovered a community of people who had made their homes in disused underground tunnels, moved in with them to offer help, and then, with no filmmaking experience, begged and borrowed camera equipment to tell their story. The result was this justly praised documentary: a work at once intimate, irreverent and respectful, from which unforgettable characters emerge, beautifully shot in black and white and with a soundtrack by DJ Shadow.
Fourteen years later, it doesn’t seem as startling as it did on its original 2000 release, for the simple reason that face time with people of dysfunctional history and unconventional lifestyle is now the meat and drink of our television industry and documentary culture alike. But Singer’s film still feels extraordinarily warm and genuine; there’s nothing showy or self-promoting in his presentation of his material, and indeed he made his subjects part of the process by enlisting them to work on the film with him and handing back what profit he made on it to them. These people and their various plights are not presented for our pity, or paraded to shock us; they tell their stories frankly and with humour, with the result that the film emphasises their ordinary humanity rather than what misfortune has befallen them.
Being shot on actual 16mm film stock at a historical moment just before digital became de rigueur also makes Dark Days an intriguing historical document for those interested in the technical processes of documentary filmmaking; a true labour of love with an aesthetic at once spontaneous and classically elegant, it’s unlikely anything much like it will ever be seen again. As for Marc Singer, he’s barely been heard from since making one of the most auspicious debuts in the history of documentary.
Limited release from Fri 24 Jan.