In Marc Singer’s award-winning documentary, it’s not just the film that’s black and white. In New York City near the turn of the millennium, for a small amount of people life is very much one or the other; it’s eat or starve, live or die. But those kind of fates never needed to be dealt on the streets, for a portion of the NY homeless had found new abodes in the tunnel system beneath the sprawling city, an effective refuge from the urban dangers of being robbed while sleeping rough or finding trouble with the police, or natural hazards such as exposure. In the tunnels, where ‘even in the daytime it’s dark’ according to one of its myriad residents, you could never feel truly disconnected; rudimentary plasterboard houses, electricity, and a closely-knit society – family, even – exist down here.

Director Marc Singer first became fascinated by the homeless in the mid nineties. Originally an Englishman who moved to the US at the age of sixteen, he had probably never seen anything on this scale in terms of homelessness before, and the incredible networks that form around them. Taking a 16mm camera and plunging into the depths of The Freedom Tunnel, a prime location for the shanty towns he had heard of in legend, he sought to capture what life was truly like in this parallel reality, with the proviso of raising money for his new friends and achieving better living arrangements for them in the long run.

Singer’s approach is gonzo journalism at its most vital and useful, and through the monochrome grain of the Kodak film used (with the company helpfully supplying free damaged reels when he ran out of money), the documentary achieves an otherworldly distance from regular life occurring just above the heads of the host of memorable characters on show. These endlessly compelling subjects, who provide details of bad luck, bad teeth, and anecdotes on life (plus the odd cooking tip here and there), glow in the dimmest, dingiest of places. If they can find happiness, why can’t we?

This doc should be claustrophobic, and by all rights melancholic; Dark Days instead goes against its own title, and delivers a vivid account of a pocket of people who are largely forgotten by the world. And even when that bubble is burst by the wrathful rail companies, it only goes to prove that whatever poor circumstance has befallen them has, at least in part, been umbilically linked to a larger and – despite the illusion of skyscrapers and clean beds – far more broken system than the one found in the tunnels.

This is small-scale filmmaking that nods its head in the direction of greater things at work, but without keeping its unkempt subjects in focus at all times. Even though this is a mere rerelease, there is much to gleam from it in our age of equity and economic desolation; ‘even in the daytime it’s dark’, one of them says. Perhaps they mean something else?


DARK DAYS will be re-released in cinemas on Friday 24 January and a deluxe double-disc edition of the DVD will be released on Monday 10 February.