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Film Review: Dark Days

Bringing a whole new meaning to 'Underground cinema'...

Londoner Mark Singer did not spend 5 ? years and all of his money making "Dark Days" because he wanted to make a film. His all-consuming passion was for his subject matter and not the relatively expensive and cumbersome medium with which he chose to treat it. Despite this, and its maker's complete lack of previous filmmaking experience, "Dark Days" is an accomplished and bracing piece that assuredly sees documentary returned to its sociological origins.

A still from 'Dark Days'The film is about a group of homeless individuals who inhabit the derelict train tunnels running beneath New York's Penn Station. Singer spent two years living intermittently with this underground community, working his way into the rhythm of their everyday lives in order to procure a truth born of trust. He engaged them both in front of and behind the scenes, ensuring that they compose both cast and crew. His ambition was to distribute among them a share of the film's potential profits so that they might afford proper housing.

At the film's opening, we have the sensation of going through a portal as we follow a man leaving in his wake the reassuring familiarity of daylight to descend into the relentless darkness he calls home. He muses "You'd be amazed what the human body, the human mind, can adjust to" and, from here on in, the film rarely abandons the claustrophobia of its alien otherworld. It firmly but gently acquaints the viewer with a reality rarely acknowledged and seems to say "This is how it is. Make of it what you will". Thankfully devoid of generalisations, statistics or overviews, it is a thoroughly personal piece. Through it we meet the people who wander in that place of social abandonment to which we all, the film makes clear, might go should God's grace and good fortune desert us.

We find in the tunnels an ongoing war between man and the rats at his feet. We sense the piercing coldness, cavernous shadows and the unsettling noises. We also, however, encounter people armed with complex and tailor-made methods of dealing with such tribulations. A myriad of measures, from personalised alarm systems to innovative rat-catching procedures, are ably improvised and should you be of the opinion that the homeless are so through choice and remain so through idleness, then this documentary will administer a swift re-education. Because these people are busy people.

Greg doggedly sets out every morning to hustle and sell the various items no longer of use to their original owners and Tommy works five days a week, sorting through recyclable items, but allows himself the weekends for relaxation. In the abandoned tunnels, personal space and independence coexist with a necessarily inter-reliant communality. Each tunnel dweller occupies a self-built and private home, which remains under continuous and rigorous construction. Most have procured electricity and enjoy lighting and the odd television.

It is, however, the film itself and the knowledge that it is those seen through its lens who are also behind it, working to fashion your view, which acquaints you with the absurdity of the needling little prejudices that might still lurk somewhere in your consciousness. "Dark Days" is very well made and a credit to its crew. Visually, it is beautiful and it is also cleverly concise. At just over one hour and twenty minutes, it constitutes the whittled down filtrate of fifty hours worth of footage. Though shot without colour because of necessity, the use of black and white film, intrinsically affiliated with the photographic portrait, is ideally suited to the intimate treatment of the individual. And it is with utter faith in the individual that this work is made. It has respect for those it depicts and, because it thankfully lacks even the slightest hint of preachy moralising, it also envisages in its imagined viewer an empathic and ethical stance.

"Dark Days" is a fine breath of fresh air and it is more than worth a look. Go see.

Elaine O'Regan


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