Dark Days is the story of a community of homeless people living in a train tunnel beneath Manhattan. These people, some resident in the cavernous tunnels for up to 25 years, literally scratch out a living in the pitch black amongst swarms of rats while high speed trains fly by. This is all very reminiscent of the folk song Dark as a Dungeon Way Down in the Mines. The rain never reaches the tunnels and the sun never shines here either – but there is free electricity and a broken pipe under which to get a cold shower.
The people keep pets and show touching affection for them, as they do for each other. Life, in these most abnormal of circumstances, continues as normally as possible. Small shacks fashioned out of wood collected from skips and furnished with items discarded by the people above ground become the real homes for the dispossessed. Not surprisingly drugs are a problem for many as they seek respite and escape from intolerable conditions. We learn later from one of the Amtrak rail officials who come to kick them all out that deaths through exposure and from the high speed trains are not uncommon. Disease is also spread through the cold, dank conditions and the multitude of rats with whom the residents share their homes.
But, compared to the persecution the homeless face from the police, and the violence and danger faced by street sleepers, as one of the residents puts it, ‘Here we’re safe – ain’t nobody going to come mess with you… You’d be surprised what the human mind and the human body can adjust to.’
The film is made in black and white, with an unobtrusive but poignant soundtrack. The strength lies in its authenticity. The film was made in its entirety by the community themselves. The camera was incorporated into the day to day lives of the residents and, oddly, becomes a constant in their lives. But this is no gameshow – this is not gratuitous reality television. The confessions and life stories that we are privy to are so sad and moving.
The original idea and editing comes from the director – a former social worker – who moved into the tunnel and lived there for two years. One might ask why anybody who did not have to would choose to do such a thing. One of the residents sums it up: ‘We might be homeless, but the point is not to be helpless. We don’t pay no bills. We’ve got a television, we can cook, and you know every day I still go up on the street to earn money. I mean I still worship the almighty dollar.’ Irony, humour and resilience abound in this film. It is not over-editorialised, nor is it patronising or sentimental.
We learn more about the characters’ lives as the film moves on, desperate and tragic in almost each and every case. The push by Amtrak and the police to evict them is ultimately a victory. The homeless are rehoused, and we watch them demolish their little shacks and tear down the walls with sledgehammers.
We see a brief clip of a few of them in their new apartments and, as one says, ‘Those were dark days. I love my new apartment, and I feel angry with myself for having lived in the tunnel for six years. But I’ll never let myself be homeless again.’
This is an excellent documentary, and well deserves the many awards it has won. It is a slice of life and an attestation to the resilience of those who capitalism abandons.
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