I think most New Yorkers have heard talk about people who live in the depths of the subway tunnels. It's hard to imagine what that would be like but few of us would be curious enough to venture down there to poke around and find out. Not filmmaker, Marc Singer, who went down into the known area, referred to as The Freedom Tunnel where he ended up taking residence. He eventually found inspiration to document it by getting a camera (camera shopCinevision supplied the camera, Kodak donated damaged film stock) and enlisted his fellow tunnel friends and neighbors as production crew. What transpired was a stark but humanistic look at not just what it's like down there, which is for sure fascinating, but a deeper view into who the tunnel inhabitants were and some understanding of what got them there. Dark Days (2000) was filmed in beautiful grainy 16mm black and white back in the nineties, but this past Tuesday at IFC theater's Stranger Than Fiction night, I watched it for the first time off a 35mm print. I had wondered about homeless people I'd heard were living down there. I know there are fires often caused by people in the tunnels, but I certainly hadn't imagined it would be as revealed in this documentary.
Singer filmed a handful of Freedom Tunnel residents with varying pasts that led them to this place, where they made their home. Many shelters were built, lamps, hotplates and televisions were plugged into power sources and I imagine this existence might beat exposure to outside elements on the street level, such as rain or snow. They were also left alone by law enforcement for the most part. This life style was obviously still incredibly tough and through the characters, the film's audience comes to understand some of their pain, humor and strength that pushes them on to survive.
Dark Days has an amazing soundtrack as well and during Singer's post Q&A, he told a great story of how he got DJ Shadow to provide the music through musician Ian Astbury. Singer also gave the audience an update on some of the subjects of the documentary, some had passed, others are doing quite well. One character owning several hot dog stands in the city.
During the course of shooting, Amtrak along with NYPD ordered the tunnel community out. Singer and other activists worked with New York's Coalition for the Homeless organization to obtain housing vouchers for those forced out of their make-shift homes, allowing them to get apartments and start anew. It's nice to see a documentary that humanizes the plight of the homeless while also providing an honest happy ending.
Dark Days had a tenth anniversary release this summer and is available online for purchase.