Following the increase in rail traffic through routes in the Bronx and New Jersey, rail operations through the Amtrak tunnel in New York City’s Upper West Side came to a halt in 1980. Soon after the railroads abandoned the massive cavern, a large group of the city’s homeless population migrated into the area. Most of the residents descended into the tunnel seeking refuge from the violent and unpredictable lives on the streets of one of the country’s most crowded cities. Marc Singer, cousin of Bryan Singer of X-Men and The Usual Suspects fame, was struck by the city’s sizable homeless population and eventually befriended many of those living in the tunnel. After living there for some time, Singer decided to film a documentary about life in the Tunnel to raise funds for its residents. Dark Days is the result of that effort.
Singer’s depiction of life in Freedom Tunnel is nothing short of remarkable. Many of us are familiar with the idea of shantytowns and can vaguely guess at how a city’s homeless live. But Singer tears down these expectations and investigates the true nature of homelessness in a bustling metropolis, dispelling stereotype while offering human faces to this sadly common condition. With little ability to relate, we watch as residents build houses from scraps of wood and plastic, scavenge through trash for food, improvise security systems built of pans and string, shower with ice water leaking from a broken pipe, and even jerry-rig a system to siphon electricity into the Tunnel to power electric stoves and fans. Many well-regarded films like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy attempt to portray life for those at the bottom of society. But no fictional film can match what Dark Days documents. The men and women the film follows prove more interesting and compelling than any fictional character a writer could script. And more candid as well with fantastic lines. (When Ralph is asked why he keeps a dog he replies: “Who told me to get a dog? The motherfucker who stole my TV and shit. That’s the motherfucker who told me to get a dog”).
Where the film truly shines is in its unfiltered depiction of these residents and the community they build. We are introduced to Tommy, a young man addicted to crack cocaine and we watch as he happily feeds the four dogs he raises in a makeshift, subterranean pen. Ralph, a recovering addict, and his friend Tito work as a team hunting through trash and we share their joy when they find boxes of freshly discarded doughnuts outside a bakery. Like Tommy and Ralph, many of the people we meet owe much of their plights to addiction. Each of the residents we follow have been impacted by addiction. Ralph is one of the few in recovery. At the time of filming, Tito is making strides to join Ralph in recovery and described the conditions in one of the detox centers he has visited. Tommy and Dee stand on the opposite end of that journey. Tommy happily describes being “crackhead rich,” meaning he has enough money on hand for two days of consistent use, totaling about $60-70. In the film’s darkest moments, Ralph and Dee recount the destruction that addiction wrought not on only their lives but the lives of their children. Dee’s testimonial is especially painful as she tearfully expresses her regrets, focusing on her sons. Immediately after this sequence we see nine sequential cuts of her taking hits from her improvised crack pipe then watch as she stares at the pipe, eyes glossy yet mournful. Her addiction is both the cause of many of her problems and the only way she knows how to cope with them.
Through all of this tragedy, there is an overwhelming sentiment of hope and optimism pervading the Tunnel. The optimism seems to stem from the Tunnel itself, in the community it allows to grow and the respite it provides its residents. After Dee’s “hut” is burned to the ground by an angry friend, Ralph takes her in and spends time trying to convince her to seek recovery and abandon her addiction. After one of Tommy’s friends is released from prison, Tommy ecstatically welcomes him into his hut. While sifting through trash Greg ponders “But it’ll get better. It definitely will pick up. You know what I’m sayin’?” At the time he was commenting on the quality of his scavenged goods but the quote embodies the spirit in the tunnel. A belief that better times wait around the corner, ready for those willing to plow on and endure. Of course, the optimism may be a face for the camera but Greg, like the others, prove markedly upbeat. An attitude afforded to those who have suffered in ways most could not imagine.
In the end, the fortunes of those in the Tunnel do change. By 1991, the trains returned to the tunnel. After a string of deaths, some related to people walking into the path of an oncoming train while intoxicated and some due purely to exposure, Amtrak decided to forcibly evict the Tunnel residents, sometimes at gunpoint. What followed was a complicated legal battle centered on where the residents would relocate. Singer himself became involved in the process and fought for subsidized housing for the evicted residents. Ultimately the residents leave the haven of the Tunnel and restart their lives anew, like they had so many times before.
Dark Days proves to be one of the most memorable films I have ever seen. Strictly taken as a documentary, the film works exceptionally well. It organizes its story effectively, captures interesting moments, and offers astonishingly heartfelt interviews. Recently, we have grown accustomed to a certain amount of polish on documentaries. Politically charged films carefully piece frames together to sway and convince an audience. What is readily apparent with Dark Days is its rough, uncut feel. Singer sets out to tell the very real story of the people of the Tunnel, a story with no need for false politics. The result is an incredibly honest and raw film that puts a face on homelessness and addiction.Rating: 10/10. Other reviews floating around generally applaud the film’s revealing subject matter. The most consistent detractions center on either the poor visual quality of the film or the film’s pessimism. While the poor quality is a valid point I hardly found it difficult to watch. Complaints about pessimism seem off-point. The negative overtones pervading the film are honest and genuine. Singer does include (relatively) upbeat moments but these moments are scaled appropriately to the situation. Showing Tito and Ralph’s happiness on discovering abandoned doughnuts serves two purposes. First, it lets us see the men in a cheerful moment, momentarily care-free and oblivious to their situation. But more importantly this moment, and many others like it, provides parallels between the people on screen and the people living in our own neighborhoods. After hundreds of homemade documentaries capturing a child’s shrieking excitement after unwrapping a new toy at Christmas, it is startling to see grown men relish trashed baked goods we might absentmindedly buy fresh in passing.
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