I have just finished watching Dark Days, a truly independent documentary by Marc Singer. This incredible film documents a homeless community, living in the railway tunnels beneath Penn station in New York city.
It is without a doubt the most socially engaged pieces of film I have seen, and by far the most successful documentary, not only because of the incredible story behind it, but because of Singer’s genuine desire to improve the lives of those involved and shed light on the lives of those living in the tunnels.
I think I can learn from Singer’s example, that when making my own documentary I should find an issue that means a lot to me so that I am passionate about it and so motivated to make a difference. I should document it in the way most beneficial to the issue rather than for my own benefit.
I also watched ‘The making of Dark Days’, a 45 minute special feature on the that describes how Dark Days was produced:
Singer learned about a community living in tunnels, from a homeless man who he befriended in his neighbourhood. Fascinated by this very unusual story, Marc ventured down to see what he could do to help. He ended up spending a lot of time down there, getting to know the people. He hadn’t planned to make a documentary, however the people who he met in the tunnels completely shattered his expectations of the homeless.
What he found was a whole community of people, with homes built from the different materials they had found. Spending their days scavenging for items to sell, cooking, caring for their pets, building and decorating their homes, and socialising with each other. A great deal of those living there had drug problems, however some just wanted to live a normal existence, away from people with drug habits.
After 3 months of spending time in the tunnels, Marc (who had never before even picked up a film camera) decided to make a documentary about their unique living situation, to raise money in order to get them out from underground and into accommodation. He felt it was important that the homeless people should be the film crew, so they were helping get themselves out of their situation. He wanted them to work as a team, because their lives were quite isolated. He wanted to install confidence in them so they could return to the real world at some point.
Singer learned how to handle and load the film into the camera from the people working in the rental shop, and learned everything else from experience in the tunnel. The film was shot in black and white to make Singer’s inexperience less visible, so the film was still watchable even if he messed up.
Having gotten to know the people living in the tunnels, Singer knew what they did before they became homeless, and so used their skills to drive the production. For example Marc really wanted there to be moving shots, and so asked a man who used to work on the railroads to create him a home made ‘dolly’ that could be moved up and down the unused rail tracks. This produced the moving shots that can be seen in the trailer. One man even tapped into the electrics in the tunnel to produce better light conditions for filming using his knowledge of electrics.
The film took a very long time to edit, as Singer had compiled over 50 hours of footage and needed to condense it into a 1hr30min film. They had just filmed anything they thought was interesting, and so it was apparently hard to structure into a storyline, especially as some characters would be there one minute and the next day gone forever.
In ‘The making of…’ many of the homeless people mention how much respect they have for Marc, as he is truly trying to improve their situation. Throughout the two and a half years Singer spends producing the film, he himself becomes bankrupt and ends up having to live in the tunnels as well.
The man who helped develop the film, Bob Mousally, said of Marc Singer:
“I think being ignorant to film making helped him, he went to make a difference for the homeless people, film making was, I think, secondary to him”.
This really sums up Marc’s motivation; he was not indulging in artistically exposing the lives of the homeless, in order to appeal to an audience at home. Instead he was helping the people communicate their situation in the way that they wanted to. They chose the shots, and controlled the direction of the story; it was not scripted but observational, and Marc rarely leads the conversation; questioning only to encourage important emotions.
This is something I could really learn from in terms of interview technique: to not manipulate the flow of information in a way that is not truthful to the person’s intention, but to communicate the message that they want to be communicated.
At the end of the documentary, the people from the tunnel were successfully rehoused in apartments above ground, with many becoming employed, and being reunited with their families. The documentary enabled them to build a new future for themselves.